Looking for clues; The Red King's Dream by Jo Elwyn Jones and Francis Gladstone Cape, pounds 16.99

Who was the Mad Hatter in real life? Miranda Seymour investigates a new attempt to find the originals for Lewis Carroll's characters

Sitting in a boathouse on a rainy afternoon in 1862, Charles Dodgson began to spin a mysterious, entrancing tale for Alice Liddell. His companion, Duckworth, entered the story as the Duck, Alice's small cousins became the Lory and the Eaglet, while Dodgson portrayed himself as the mild, outdated Dodo.

We know that when Alice in Wonderland became famous, Dodgson himself wrote that there was no "why" to the book, other than the desire to please a little girl. We know, too, that Dodgson was an Oxford mathematician and that much of Alice's mad charm springs from his ability to put preposterous ideas together as logical equations (as when the broody pigeon, fearing serpents, is convinced that Alice must be a serpent because she also eats eggs).

Dodgson, a traditionalist, lived in Oxford at a time when the city was violently at war with itself - about religion, about reform, and about rebuilding. He was outraged at the sum being spent on a new Natural History Museum. He disapproved of Dean Liddell's plans for a new Tom Tower. He clung to the Old Testament scheme of creation at the time when TH "Bulldog" Huxley was debating the case for evolution with Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce.

Elwyn Jones and Gladstone have approached the Alice books in the spirit of a literary detective game. To play, you must abandon the idea that Dodgson was telling a children's story. That was the cover. What he was really doing was getting his own back on everybody who had failed to treat him well, from Alice's father to the Poet Laureate. Dodgson, in the view of these authors, was an irredeemable snob, using his camera as an entree to circles he could never have hoped to join as a poor don.

They are not the first to have spotted connections. Martin Gardner's glorious book, The Annotated Alice, has been here before and with a wider range of possible sources. I far prefer his suggestion that the Mad Hatter was based on an eccentric, top-hatted Oxford furniture dealer, to the proposal, here, that he was based on Charles Kingsley.

The chapter leading to this revelation is a fair example of the book's style and method. The Hatter's riddle about the raven and the writing desk leads them to a novel, Ravenshoe by Charles Kingsley's brother, Henry. There is a tenuous connection: Dodgson had once photographed him. And Henry - wait for it - must have written his novel at a writing-desk! Peering at a photograph of a bust of Charles Kingsley, the authors note that it has a sightless look which reminds them of the Hatter. Later, they find a photograph of Kingsley wearing a top hat.

By now, they are seeing connections everywhere. Kingsley was a confident speaker; so was the Hatter. The Hatter was mad; Kingsley's books were mad "in a certain sense - written in an emphatic, racy style". Might the March Hare's remark about the "best butter" be turned into a loose anagram of "The Water-Babies"? No problem at all, if you don't mind omitting six letters.

And so on. They have only to know that Ruskin, unwillingly, once danced a quadrille to set him down as the lobster. The fact that Tennyson's twin sons, beautiful little boys on whom Dodgson doted, wore white collars and striped shirts, makes them clear candidates for Tweedledum and Tweedledee. If Newman and Manning are the White and Red Queens, then Pusey must be the Sheep. If Sir Alfred Tennyson lived on the Isle of Wight, why not see him as the White Knight? The style is coy and cloddish, the revelations often absurd.

There is no doubt that the authors are right to suggest that Dodgson's Oxford experiences coloured some of the characters with which he entertained Alice. But why, in such a book, have they given so little consideration to the fact that Tenniel, Dodgson's illustrator, was a political cartoonist, whose hobby was satire? Is it not possible that many of their discoveries link to Tenniel's worldly interests rather than to Dodgson's whimsical stories?

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