Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

July Books 12) The Story of Alice

12) The Story of Alice, by Mavis Batey

Picked this up off the in-laws' bookshelves thinking it would prove just an attempt to rip off the Alice in Wonderland fans, but in fact it's rather good, especially given the length (less than 100 pages), illustrating bits of the back-story to Dodgson's writing and relationship with Alice. Batey has done a lot of (or at least has fluently recounted other people's) historical research, tying specific events in real-life Oxford of 1859-63 with specific events in the books. Very neat; I just wish there had been proper footnotes so that I knew which bits were her own research and which from other people, and ideas for what else I might read on the subject. I'm sure a lot of it is hers; a quick google reveals that she's done a lot of historical research on both literary figures and gardens.

Apart from Dodgson and Alice, the other star of the book is the place they both lived, Christ Church, the grandest of the Oxford colleges. I spent a weekend there in 1990 as a steward at a conference for an organisation which I won't name, but which was sometimes nicknamed "toffs against terrorism" by cruel insiders. The conference set-up was a little informal, verging on the chaotic, and a senior British government figure joked in his closing speech that this was only appropriate in the college of Lewis Carroll.

There were a number of early departures and the conference organiser asked me if I knew anyone in Oxford to invite to fill gaps in the conference dinner. As it happened my great-uncle is a retired doctor who worked most of his life in Oxford and sill lives there. He was brought up a staunch Presbyterian in Belfast (his sister, my grandmother, converted to Catholicism in the 1930s but her family have long since got over it) so I knew he would be interested, and indeed he was. Over dinner he got chatting to a Fine Gael TD and told a story I hadn't heard before, about why his parents had moved back to Belfast from Dublin where he was born - apparently my great-grandfather was one of the civil servants who was marched out of the Customs House at gunpoint in May 1921, and had told his children many times of being forced to be part of a human barricade while the British troops closed in on the IRA men who were burning the building down.

The Fine Gael TD looked as if she didn't quite know how to take my great-uncle's story. I later discovered that her great-uncle was Michael Collins, who of course was responsible for the Customs House attack (though I note that the Neil Jordan film portrays him as thinking it was a stupid idea).

This conversation took place in the Great Hall of Christ Church which itself played a role in a different civil conflict - it was the place where the MPs and peers still loyal to Charles I met as a pro-Royalist parliament from 1642 to 1646, while Oxford was the Cavaliers' capital. Charles himself ruled from a temporary palace in the Deanery of Christ Church, where just over two centuries years later Alice Liddell's father would reside as Dean.

It's all interconnected somehow.
Tags: bookblog 2004, life: autobiography, life: family
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