Lewis Carroll's two Alice tales are enthralling for grown-ups as well as children – but is there also something adult, as in "adult magazines", lurking in the background? Eyebrows have long been raised at its author's hobby, of taking nude photographs of little girls.
Some of Simon Winchester's previous books have depicted aspects of the 19th century: the Krakatoa eruption, a murderous contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary and a geologist who showed that Genesis was not Gospel truth. He now turns, in this intriguing and enjoyable book, to the "uneasy resonances" of a "disturbing" 1858 portrait of a six-year-old "lazing coquettishly" with "a winsome look". Dressed as a beggar-maid in a very off-the-shoulder dress, Alice Liddell was to become the eponymous heroine of two of our greatest children's books.
Having summoned up the spectre of something nasty in the shrubbery, however, Winchester exorcises it by declaring Charles Dodgson (Carroll was his alias) to be as innocent as the children he snapped. It was a case of his having inner child, not an inner dirty old man. The retiring Oxford mathematician was thought to have honourable designs on Alice's older sister.
Those of us who have enjoyed reading the Alice books to our own children will be glad to have that cleared up, although it might seem to sabotage a slim volume by tipping its central theme down a rabbit hole. Fortunately, Winchester saves the day by using the evocative photo as a way into the development of photography and the part it played in the creation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by bringing Carroll into contact with the family of his boss, Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church.
He met the Liddell children just as he had bought his first camera and his writing career was taking off. When she was 10, Alice joined a boating trip up the Isis, during which he extemporised a subterranean yarn about her, with himself as the Dodo. His words would have been lost on the Oxford air – but Alice asked if he would write them down for her. A year and a half later, he gave her Alice's Adventures Underground. After a further year it was expanded and published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It was absolutely brilliant or, as the Jabberwocky would have put it, brillig.