“I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then”
- Alice, Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
The Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been immortalised as an adventurous little girl with an inquisitive spirit and a vivid imagination. But there was a very real Alice much before the fictional one, who played a pivotal role in the emergence of what is now known as a children’s classic.
Alice Liddell was born in 1852, and met Lewis Carroll – whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – when he was a senior scholar at Oxford. In those days, senior scholars were ordained as priests and sworn into celibacy, so Carroll spent his life as a bachelor. It was very common then for bachelors to strike up close relationships with their friends’ children, and this is what happened with Carroll and the Liddell siblings.
Carroll met the Liddells as his writing career was beginning to take off, and he was cultivating an active interest in photography. As a result, he would spend many afternoons entertaining the Liddell children with fantastical stories, and taking their photographs. He showed a particular interest in Alice, and was fascinated by her ‘dark, elfin features’.
I feel obliged to make a minor digression here, as Carroll’s moral compass has come under scrutiny in the past. With his closeness to Alice, and his plethora of photographs of children either nude or semi-nude, allegations of paedophilia began to surface. However, in The Alice Behind Wonderland, Simon Winchester provides certain key insights from Carroll’s times that shed more light on the matter. While Victorian England was known for its prudishness, the obsession with clothing and morality did not extend to children – in fact, nude photos and portraits of children would often be circulated as postcards or birthday cards, as these were seen as a representation of the innocence and grace of childhood. In this environment, Carroll’s images caused no great scandal, rather, they were absolutely conventional. Alice’s parents were present while these photographs were taken, and even kept some of them. During his time, Carroll was known as a gentle, and well-liked soul; claims of paedophilia only emerged after his death, and no evidence exists to prove the same.
Now, back to Alice.
The story behind the creation of Wonderland is said to have begun on one of Carroll’s many afternoons with Alice. During a leisurely boat ride down the river Thames, Carroll told Alice a story that featured her as the protagonist for the first time. Thrilled, Alice begged him to write the story down, and thus, Wonderland was born (although the name ‘Wonderland’ came much later – originally Alice’s story was called Alice’s Adventures Underground). Lewis Carroll gave this book to Alice as a Christmas gift in 1864, when she was twelve years old.
But as Alice grew older, her relationship with Carroll became distant – the bonds forged through imagination and storytelling faded away. As she grew into the marriageable age of her times, Alice entered society as an eligible bachelorette, and caught the attention of Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold.
Alas, their marriage was not to be, as Queen Victoria insisted that Prince Leopold must marry a princess. However, he only married a princess after Alice married a famous cricketer named Reginald Hargreaves; Prince Leopold later named his daughter Alice. He was also the godfather of Alice’s second son, Leopold (all rather complicated, if you ask me).
After getting married, Alice spent the rest of her life in high society, running a large household and raising three sons (sadly, two of them died in the first world war). It seemed Alice had completely severed her ties with the magic of Wonderland.
However, she was drawn back to this world of imagination one last time, towards the end of her life. In 1932, Alice Liddell was invited to a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s birth, in New York. Alice paid tribute to the author that played such a significant role during her childhood, and in what is possibly the only video of her that exists, she says,
It is a great honour and a great pleasure to come over here, and I think now my adventures overseas will be almost as interesting as my adventures underground were
(Underground refers to Wonderland)
Alice Liddell died two years later, at the age of 84. But the young spirit that had captivated Carroll remains carefully preserved in the books that inspired the imaginations of children for generations afterwards.
Arbuckle, Alex Q. “The real Alice in Wonderland” Mashable. Web. <https://mashable.com/2015/11/17/real-alice-in-wonderland/ > as seen on September 21st, 2020.
Sale, Jonathan. “The Alice Behind Wonderland, By Simon Winchester” Independent. April 27th, 2011. Web. < https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-alice-behind-wonderland-by-simon-winchester-2275041.html > as seen on September 21st, 2020.
Woolf, Jenny. “Lewis Carroll’s Shifting Reputation” Smithsonian Magazine. April, 2010. Web. < https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/lewis-carrolls-shifting-reputation-9432378/ > as seen on September 21st, 2020.