It’s a timeless classic of children’s literature and the third most-quoted work in English after the Bible and Hamlet.
But what lies behind the extraordinary appeal of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? To mark the 150th anniversary of its publication, this documentary explores the life and the imagination of the man who wrote it, the Rev Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll.
Broadcaster and journalist Martha Kearney delves into the biographies of both Carroll and of the young girl Alice Liddell, who inspired his most famous creation.
Kearney’s lifelong passion for Carroll’s work began when, as a young girl, she starred as Carroll’s heroine Alice in her local village play.
She discusses the book with a range of experts, biographers and distinguished cultural figures, from the actor Richard E Grant to children’s author Philip Pullman, and explores with them the mystery of how a retiring, buttoned-up and meticulous mathematics don, who spent almost his entire life within the cloistered confines of Christ Church Oxford, was able to capture the world of childhood in such a captivating way.
Martha places Carroll’s pioneering work in the context of the Victorian imagination, where a fascination with the innocence of young girls was widespread, and goes on to explore the true nature of the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the Liddell family, uncovering the surviving clues in a piece of forensic literary detective work.
The documentary has the potential to be pretty explosive as researchers uncovered some disturbing naked pictures of Alice’s elder sister Lorina taken by Carroll in a French museum. As Kearney herself has said, they are the kind of images that “no parent would ever have consented to”. With that discovery, the documentary took a very different turn.
Carroll knew the girls’ father Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and he befriended the pair when they were both young children.
Literature professor Hugh Haughton from the University of York is one of a number of expert contributors. Author of a number of books about the author, he tells the programme: “It will certainly make it harder for those who believe that Carroll’s interest in little girls was totally innocent; it will make it more complicated.”
As the programme delves into the darker side of Caroll’s personal life, all involved were aware that they might be about to rewrite the history of one of children’s literature’s most popular authors.
“Dodgson himself, I think, was a heavily repressed paedophile, without doubt,” says the author Will Self. “It’s a problem, isn’t it, when somebody writes a great book but they’re not a great person.”
Conscious that Carroll might be about to recast as a villain, Alice’s great-grand daughter Vanessa Tait tells the programme: “He was a strange man but an admirable one, and I don’t want to tar him with accusations of paedophilia.
“My understanding is that he was in love with Alice, but he was so repressed that he never would have transgressed any boundaries. I do think he was a strange man, and people who say he wasn’t and are totally whitewashing him are wrong.”
The Secret World of Lewis Carroll, BBC2, Saturday, 9pm