All In The Golden Afternoon: Alice Liddell’s Adventures

‘I hope I’m not ungrateful, but I do get so tired of being Alice,’ Mrs Alice Hargreaves told her son Caryl, shortly before her death in November 1934. Since childhood, she had been known as the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Born Alice Pleasance Liddell on 4th May 1852, Alice was the third child of Lorina and Henry Liddell, the headmaster of Westminster School. In 1855, Alice’s father was made Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford and so the family, including the children’s governess, Miss Prickett, left London for the Dean’s lodgings in Tom Quad. The Liddells became noted society hosts at Oxford, with Mrs Liddell earning herself the nickname ‘the kingfisher,’ on account of her desire to make connections that might better the future marriage prospects of her daughters.

At Christ Church, the Liddell family made a significant acquaintance that would have a notable impact upon them, Alice in particular. The Dean befriended a young mathematics don named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. A keen photographer, Dodgson’s preferred subjects were young children, usually depicting historical figures or scenes from literature. Pictures of children were especially loved by the Victorians, often appearing on greetings cards and advertisements as they were thought to convey an image of innocent beauty and purity. Sharing Dodgson’s enthusiasm for photography, the Dean asked him if he might photograph his own children; the Liddell children would pose for Dodgson several times over the next decade.

But the Liddell’s friendship with Dodgson also extended to outings, picnics and boat trips. On 4th July 1862, Dodgson and another Christ Church man, the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took Alice Liddell and her sisters Lorina and Edith on a trip along The Isis from Oxford to Godstow. As Duckworth rowed, Dodgson regaled the children with marvellous tales, as he had many times before. Yet the one he told that afternoon as the sun glistened on the river, somehow surpassed those that had come before; so much so that Alice, upon whom it had made a great impression, asked him if he would write it down for her. Dodgson described it in his diary as a ‘white stone day,’ a term he used for one that was special to him. Alice herself remembered many years later:

‘Most of Mr. Dodgson’s stories were told to us on river expeditions to Nuneham or Godstow, near Oxford. My eldest sister, now Mrs. Skene, was “Prima,” I was “Secunda,” and “Tertia” was my sister Edith. I believe the beginning of “Alice” was told one summer afternoon when the sun was so burning that we had landed in the meadows down the river, deserting the boat to take refuge in the only bit of shade to be found, which was under a new-made hayrick. Here from all three came the old petition of “Tell us a story,” and so began the ever-delightful tale. Sometimes to tease us—and perhaps being really tired—Mr. Dodgson would stop suddenly and say, “And that’s all till next time.” “Ah, but it is next time,” would be the exclamation from all three; and after some persuasion the story would start afresh. Another day, perhaps, the story would begin in the boat, and Mr. Dodgson, in the middle of telling a thrilling adventure, would pretend to go fast asleep, to our great dismay.’

It would appear that Dodgson’s close friendship with the Liddells cooled rather abruptly in June 1863 and he only saw them intermittently afterwards. The exact reason for this remains unknown and has been termed ‘The Liddell Riddle’ by scholars of Dodgson’s life. Seemingly the cause lay in events that took place sometime on 27th, 28th or 29th of June. However, Dodgson’s diary entries for the days in question were posthumously removed, most probably by a member of the Dodgson family. No further mention of the Liddells were to be found in the diaries either, until December that year, when Dodgson wrote of how he had consciously distanced himself from them all term. As Angelica Shirley Carpenter highlighted in her 2003 book, Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass, notes were later discovered, believed to have been written by one of Dodgson’s nieces, giving a brief explanation of the missing entries, with one stating ‘L.C. learns from Mrs. Liddell that he is supposed to be using the children as a means of paying court to the governess. He is also supposed by some to be courting Ina.’

One theory, popular from the 1930s onward and explored in such works as A. M. E. Goldschmidt’s Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed (1933) and Florence Becker Lennon’s Victoria Through the Looking Glass (1945), was that Dodgson was in fact infatuated with the 11 year-old Alice Liddell, and had even proposed marriage to her. No evidence to support such speculation has ever been found, and many of Dodgson’s letters to the Liddell family were destroyed. Moreover, a stipulation of Dodgson’s fellowship at Christ Church, and ordination as a Deacon in the Church of England in 1861 was that he would remain unmarried. Dodgson himself told friends on several occasions that he had no intention of ever marrying. By contrast, ‘Ina’ – meaning Lorina, the Liddell’s eldest girl was then 14, the age at which the Victorians believed it was no longer appropriate for a girl to spend time unsupervised in the company of a gentleman.

Karoline Leach’s book, In The Shadow of the Dreamchild suggests that the idea Dodgson had an aberrant attraction to very young girls largely arises from a tendency to view Victorian society through contemporary eyes, thereby misunderstanding both it and him. Leach dubs the speculation about his sexuality the ‘Carroll Myth’ as a result. Indeed, given that he had seven younger sisters, all of which he enjoyed a close relationship with, it is hardly surprising that Dodgson felt at ease with the opposite sex. Furthermore, Leach reasons too that Dodgson did not exclusively seek the company of children, and that many of those described by him in his diaries and letters as ‘child-friends’ were actually in their twenties, as it was a term Dodgson commonly applied to anyone under 40.

Similarly, Leach maintains that Dodgson was interested, perhaps romantically, in numerous older women, some of whom were married, which would have been a source of gossip and even scandal if it were widely known about at the time. By describing his uncle’s interest in young girls as a ‘very important and distinct side of his nature’ and emphasising it throughout his 1898 work The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, Dodgson’s nephew and first biographer, Stewart Collingwood Dodgson unwittingly contributed to the ‘Carroll Myth.’ It is certainly plausible that Collingwood may have been attempting to deflect attention from his uncle’s relationships with older, married women, which to the Victorian mind would have been far more alarming than any attachment to a child.

Nearly eighteen months after the boat trip to Godstow, Dodgson finally presented Alice Liddell with Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, a handwritten and illustrated manuscript of the story he had told her and her sisters, that July afternoon. A friend of Dodgson’s, the Scottish author and poet George MacDonald, had seen the work in progress and been so impressed that he persuaded him to share it with a wider audience. With illustrations by the Punch cartoonist, John Tenniel, the story was published on 4th July 1865 under its new title, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Dodgson also decided to take a pen-name. Taking the names Charles and Lutwidge, he translated them into Latin, and then reversed them to become ‘Lewis Carroll.’ Winning its author almost instant celebrity, the book proved to be immensely popular with both children and adults alike, although Dodgson preferred to carry on with his life at Christ Church, in the same unassuming manner he always had done. Though perhaps, not quite as mildly as Virginia Woolf claimed in her 1939 essay, Lewis Carroll, when she wrote, ‘The Reverend C. L. Dodgson had no life. He passed through the world so lightly that he left no print. He melted so passively into Oxford that he is invisible.’ Nevertheless, Dodgson continued to focus on his academic commitments, writing works including The Fifth Book of Euclid, treated Algebraically, all of which were published under his own name.

Though the protagonist of a now world-famous book would always remain 7 years of age, the real Alice was now a teenager. After meeting her in May 1865, Dodgson commented that she seemed, ‘changed a good deal, and hardly for the better, probably going through the usual awkward stage of transition.’ In 1867, the success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland took Dodgson on a tour of Europe, an experience he greatly enjoyed, even though he would never set foot abroad again. Upon his return to Oxford, he moved into new and larger rooms at Christ Church, which he would occupy for the remainder of his life. At the same time, he had begun to think about a follow up book, utilising Alice as the central character, and was also working on a volume of verse, of which one poem Phantasmagoria, was a tale about the interaction between a ghost and the living it haunted. Phantasmagoria and Other Poems was published in 1869, with Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There following two years later. The latter ended with the poem, A Boat Beneath A Sunny Sky, an acrostic within which the first letter of each line spelled out Alice Pleasance Liddell.

In 1872, Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria came up to Christ Church. He quickly became enamoured of Alice, and she of him, but marriage was never a possibility between them due to their respective social positions, and the Monarch’s insistence that Leopold must marry royalty. In spite of this they remained exceptionally close, and when Alice married the cricketer Reginald Hargreaves at Westminster Abbey in 1881, she wore a diamond and ruby brooch – a gift from Leopold, who was noticeably absent from the ceremony. Prince Leopold was bestowed the title of Duke of Albany in 1881, and a year later he married Princess Helene Friederike, daughter of the sovereign of the German principality of Waldeck-Pyrmont. The Duchess of Albany gave birth to their daughter in 1883, with Leopold naming the child Alice.

The Hargreaves had welcomed their first son, Alan Knyveton in 1881 and in two years later, their second was born and christened Leopold Reginald, though with the Duke as his godfather he was soon nicknamed ‘Rex’ by his family. A hemophiliac who had suffered lifelong problems with his health, Prince Leopold died in 1884 at the age of 30, leaving Alice grief-stricken. Caryl Liddell Hargreaves, Alice’s third son, was born in 1887 and was apparently named after a character in a novel, the title of which his mother never revealed.

Cuffnells, a sprawling estate in Lyndhurst, Hampshire and the Hargreaves family home, became noted for the grand balls and shooting parties hosted there. Alice immersed herself in country life, becoming a pillar of the local community; with her young family occupying her time, she rarely paid much thought to her early years at Oxford, and her contact with Dodgson became even more infrequent. In 1876 Dodgson had published the nonsense verse The Hunting of the Snark, and Sylvie and Bruno followed in 1889, after his retirement from teaching in 1881. He had not attended Alice’s wedding, and reportedly declined an offer to be godfather to her youngest son, but he nevertheless wrote to Alice fondly recalling earlier days, telling her ‘I have had some scores of child-friends since your time, but they have been quite a different thing.’ In 1886, he wrote to Alice asking if she would permit the original copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground to be published in facsimile and allow the profits to be given to ‘hospitals and homes for sick children.’ Dodgson met Alice for the last time in 1891, after inviting her and her Reginald for tea, and later mused in his diary that though he had liked the younger man, ‘It is hard to realize that he was the husband of one I can scarcely picture to myself, even now, as more than 7 years-old.’ Over Christmas time 1897, Dodgson became ill with pneumonia whilst saying with one of his sisters in Guildford and died on 14th January 1898. He was buried at the Mount Cemetery in Guildford and his final work, a collection of poems entitled Three Sunsets, was published shortly after his death.

The outbreak of the Great War would rip apart the gentle and charmed world Alice had known in her youth, and that Dodgson had written about. Alan Hargreaves went to Sandhurst, and fought in the Boer War, his brothers both studied at Christ Church, but all three joined up in 1914. Alan, who had been wounded several times, received the DSO for his service in 1914 and was killed in action on 9th May 1915. Rex, a Lieutenant with the 1st Battalion Irish Guards was wounded in France in November 1915, but returned to the front in August 1916 after a period of recuperation in England. On 25th September 1916, he was killed in the attack on Lesbœufs and in November that year, he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross ‘For conspicuous gallantry in action. He set a fine example of coolness and courage at a somewhat critical period and, personally, took forward and established a covering party.’ Alice’s youngest son survived the war, but his relationship with his mother became strained, as she disapproved of his marriage to a war widow with two children. They were reconciled however, by the birth of Caryl daughter, Mary Jean Rosalie Alice Hargreaves in June 1931.

The Hargreaves were devastated by the loss of Alan and Rex, and Reginald died in 1926, by all accounts a broken man. By the late 1920s the harsh economic climate meant that Alice could no longer afford the upkeep of Cuffnells, and in 1928, she approached Sotherby’s with the intention of selling the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventure’s Under Ground. It fetched £15,400 at auction, almost four times the reserve price. Eldridge. R. Johnson later acquired the manuscript, and it was displayed at Columbia University in 1932 to mark the centenary of Dodgson’s birth. Alice attended the event, where she received an honorary doctorate, and gave a speech in which she described Dodgson as ‘the ideal friend of childhood.’

Alice Hargreaves died in November 1934, and her ashes were placed alongside her husband’s in the family tomb at St Michael’s and All Angels Church, in Lyndhurst. Alice’s cherished Cuffnells, for which she had sacrificed Alice’s Adventure’s Under Ground, was given to the military in 1941 and demolished in the 1950s. Donated to the British Library in 1948, ‘in recognition of Britain’s courage in facing Hitler before America came into the war,’ Dodgson’s original manuscript is still on display there today, a gift not only to Alice but to us all, and a priceless remnant of a ‘Wonderland of long ago,’ filled with ‘happy summer days.

Above: The first film of Alice in Wonderland (1903)


Selected Sources:

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll – Stuart Dodgson Collingwood (1898)

Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed –  A. M. E. Goldshcmidt (1933)

Victoria Through the Looking Glass – Florence Becker Lennon (1945)

Lewis Caroll: Through the Looking Glass – Angelica Shirley Carpenter (2003)

In the Shadow of the Dreamchild – Karoline Leach (2009)