This year, 2015, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the classic Victorian fantasy for which the author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, used the pen name of Lewis Carroll.
But it was in 1864 when Dodgson (then a young clergyman and mathematics don at Oxford) presented a girl who was twelve years old with the very special Christmas gift of a handwritten manuscript. That illustrated story had been very much inspired by an idyllic summer’s day spent boating on the Isis, along with Alice’s sisters, Edith and Lorina ~ all daughters of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church college.
At that point the story had been called Alice’s Adventures Underground, and was simply a private enterprise to commemorate his fondness for the child first met when she was four at a party on the deanery lawns, when the twenty-four year-old young man went home to write in his diary of a day of great significance.
In later years Dodgson denied that the character of Alice had ever been based on a real child. But, by then a rift had opened up between him and the Liddell family, and although the reason is unknown there has been speculation that Alice’s mother was concerned at the intensity of the friendship between her child and the older man. Certainly many photographs that Dodgson made of the juvenile (along with portraits of other girls) were subsequently destroyed. And when a chance meeting occurred, when Alice was a teenager, Dodgson wrote that he had found her ‘changed’ ~ and not for the better.
But, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland there are many clues about his muse, such as the fact that the real girl celebrated her birthday on May 4th, and during the Hatter’s tea party we read ~
‘The Hatter was the first to break the silence. “What day of the month is it?” he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket and was looking at it uneasily…Alice considered a little, and then said, “The Fourth”.’
Perhaps that could simply be construed as something of a coincidence. But if you read the epilogue at the end of Through the Looking Glass, you will find this moving poem, in which the first letter of every line spells out the following full name: Alice Pleasance Liddell.
A boat beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear
Pleased a simple tale to hear —
Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life what is it but a dream?
‘Still she haunts me’. What a dreamlike yearning in that line. What poignant memories are shown in reflections of that summer’s day. But every summer’s day must end, and as many more of them passed by the little girl grew up to become an elegant young woman who beguiled many more of Oxford’s men; including the Queen’s youngest son.
Alice and Prince Leopold may well have hoped to marry, but times were very different then, and Victoria was adamant that her son wed a woman of royal blood. However, he did make a point when naming his first child Alice. And when Alice was to marry a man called Reginald Hargreaves she named her first son Leopold, with the prince then becoming his godfather.
It was only after her husband’s death, when she found herself to be in need, that Alice was forced to sell the original Dodgson manuscript. Auctioned at London’s Sotheby’s in 1928 it raised £15,400; four times the reserve price.
However the loss of the manuscript did not mark the end of Alice’s link with the man who had written it for her. In 1932, to mark the centenary of Dodgson’s birth, she was invited to New York to receive an honorary doctorate from Columbia University.
The trip was exciting, but also exhausting. It led to a deluge of personal letters and interest from the media, the pressure of which may very well have contributed to her death which came in 1934. Since then her ashes have been interred in the family tomb at Lyndhust, upon which you can find the words: The grave of Mrs Reginald Hargreaves, the Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
For a somewhat more modern perspective on the later life of Alice Liddell, the film Dreamchild (1985, with a screenplay by Dennis Potter) tells of Alice’s journey to New York, with flashbacks to her Victorian youth. The part of the older Alice was played by Coral Browne who received a London Evening Standard Film Award for best actress performance of the year. Ian Holm played the part of Dodgson, and several imaginary puppets which represent Wonderland characters were created by Jim Henson. If you can find a copy now, it is a very special film.
And finally, if you wish to view Dodgson’s original manuscript for Alice’s Adventures Underground, it is held at The British Museum, to which it was donated after being sold a second time when the necessary funds were raised by a consortium of American businessmen.
Essie Fox has written three Victorian novels which are published by Orion Books. She has been featured on the Channel 4 Book Club and was shortlisted for the National Book Awards. Her first novel, The Somnambulist, has been optioned by Hat Trick Productions.