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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s wondrous tale of the little girl who fell down a rabbit hole and woke up in a magical and topsy turvy land, is a well loved story, translated into almost every language and made into several films. But who were Lewis Carroll and Alice in real life? Charlotte Mountford investigates.
Text and Photography by: Charlotte Mountford
Country: England

anet McMullin, senior assistant to the librarian at Christ Church College, University of Oxford, talks to TeaTime-Mag about Lewis Carroll.

“I look after the Lewis Carroll collection here,” says McMullin, adding immediately “nobody here at the college likes Carroll. My colleagues don’t like him, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have either- from what I know about him.”

McMullin goes on. “Lewis Carroll, whose name in real life was Charles Dodgson, studied here at Christ Church, and worked right here in the Christ Church library from 1855 on. He was a very difficult man, fussy and particular. He drove his colleagues crazy complaining about the little things, like the post arriving damp from being carried across the quad, or being given too much milk in the mornings at breakfast.”

How does McMullin know all this? “From the writings of Carroll’s contemporaries,” she says. “It’s clear children liked him, yes – but not adults. They found him difficult to get along with, awkward. Yet on the other hand, he knew men like Lord Tennyson” she adds, “so he was well connected, though perhaps didn’t have many friends.”

And Alice was a real child? “Absolutely,” says McMullin. “The real life Alice in Wonderland, called Alice Liddell, was the Dean of Christ Church’s daughter. Carroll met the young Alice Liddell and her two sisters in the Dean’s garden one afternoon in 1856, while he was taking photos of the Cathedral – with the Dean’s permission of course,” stresses McMullin.

After this meeting, Alice Liddell and Carroll struck up a friendship which lasted years, and in the summer of 1862, the 4th of July, he took Alice and her sisters boating. Drifting down the Thames River ‘one happy summer day’ as Carroll wrote, he first told Alice the story of ‘Alice’s Underground Adventure.’ Carroll later said of the story; “The heroine spends an hour underground, and meets various birds, beasts, etc. (no fairies), endowed with speech. The whole thing is a dream, but that I don’t want revealed till the end.”

The young Alice Liddell clearly knew a good thing when she heard it. She immediately requested that Carroll write the story down for her, which he promptly did, giving the completed manuscript to Alice as a present in 1864. And then, encouraged by friends, Carroll made arrangements for the manuscript to be published – paying for the process himself.

There has always been ‘speculation’ regarding Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll’s personal relationship. Did anything inappropriate ever happen between them do you think? McMullin pauses. “I don’t think so,” she replies. “People have said Carroll was having an affair with Alice’s mother, or that he wanted to marry her governess – or even wanted to marry Alice herself! I don’t believe it. I just think he liked the company of children, and especially girls, simply because they had more imagination. Boys were required to ‘knuckle down’ at a young age, whereas little girls – before they became ‘Victorian young ladies’ around the age of 13 – were more free. They weren’t required to have a formal education pre-puberty. It’s interesting, and slightly sad, that Carroll stops writing silly letters to his childhood favorites like Alice, when they get to be about 13 years old.”

Indeed Carroll wrote in his diary after seeing Alice in Christ Church quad in 1865 after a long absence, ‘Alice seems changed a good deal, and hardly for the better – probably going through the usual awkward stage of transition.’ “I don’t believe Carroll was gay either,” adds McMullin. “He was very repressed. It wouldn’t have occurred to him.”

What happened to Alice when she grew up, do we know? “In 1880 Alice married a man named Reginald Hargreaves and lived a conventional middle class life in Hampshire. She had three sons, two of which were sadly killed during the First World War.”

Does working in the Christ Church library make you feel close to Alice Liddell? “No,” says McMullin, “because I don’t like Alice very much either. I think she was a hard woman, not a sentimental bone in her body. Perhaps she was an exciting, interesting child but she became aloof. She sold the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland, and everything Carroll had ever given her in 1928, imagine! I suppose she hit upon hard times, but still I think she was cold, selling it all.”

“And yet,” McMullin goes on, “there was the alleged love affair that took place between Alice Liddell and Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son. Leopold studied at Christ Church from 1872, and was a friend of the Liddell’s. As the story goes, Alice wanted to marry Prince Leopold – though I don’t think Queen Victoria would have allowed her son to marry a commoner. However, surely it’s more than a coincidence that Alice Liddell named her second son Leopold and his nickname was always ‘Rex’, meaning ‘King.’ And that prince Leopold named his first daughter, Alice.”

Then perhaps under the surface, Alice did care? “We can never know,” says McMullin. “Alice also named her third and only surviving son ‘Caryl’ – which sounds the same as ‘Carroll.’ Yet she always said it was simply a name from a novel she had read, no more. But I don’t believe that!” laughs McMullin. “I think perhaps she just got sick of it all. As Lewis Carroll’s story grew increasingly famous during Alice Liddell’s lifetime, so the interest in Alice Liddell grew. And as Alice herself explained in a letter to her son Caryl, she was eventually just ‘tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful?’ wrote Alice ‘It is – only I do get tired!’”

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“Initially Carroll drew his own illustrations for the book, but eventually realized that he wasn’t much of an artist – basically his own sketches weren’t cutting it,” explains McMullin. “So he searched around and found John Tenniel, a cartoonist for Punch Magazine. Together they published the first edition in 1865 – but Tenniel wasn’t happy with the quality of the drawings so recalled the edition. The few copies of this edition that weren’t used for scrap paper now sell for one million pounds each at auction!”


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Easy Summary

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is Lewis Carroll’s wonderful tale of the little girl who fell down a rabbit hole and woke up in a magical land. But who were Lewis Carroll and Alice in real life?

Janet McMullin is the senior assistant to the librarian at Christ Church College, University of Oxford. She explains, “I look after the Lewis Carroll collection here,” although “nobody here at the college likes Carroll. My colleagues don’t like him, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have either- from what I know about him.”

“He was a very difficult man, fussy and particular. He drove his colleagues crazy complaining about the little things, like the post arriving damp from being carried across the quad, or being given too much milk in the mornings at breakfast.”

McMullin explains that Alice was a real child. “The real life Alice in Wonderland, called Alice Liddell, was the Dean of Christ Church’s daughter.” Alice Liddell and Carroll struck up a friendship which lasted years. In the summer of 1862, the 4th of July, he took Alice and her sisters boating. Drifting down the Thames River he first told Alice the story of ‘Alice’s Underground Adventure’.

The young Alice Liddell requested that Carroll write the story down for her. He did, and gave the completed manuscript to Alice as a present in 1864.

 

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The real Alice in wonderland

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