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.’ Continue reading

A Hopeless Dawn: Mary Jane Kelly’s Last Day

‘You would look in vain now for Dorset Street. It is still there, but under another name,’ wrote Inspector Walter Dew one of the first police officers to see the horrifically mutilated corpse of Jack the Ripper’s last canonical victim, Mary Jane Kelly. The sight of Kelly’s body, found lying on her bed in her dingy room in Miller’s Court, an offshoot of Dorset Street, was so terrible that Dew never forgot it, reliving the discovery in graphic detail in his 1938 memoir. By  1904, in an attempt to distance the street from its grisly past, it had been renamed Duval Street and by the 1920s, a great many of the slums and doss houses that once dominated it had been demolished, including Miller’s Court. Now a nameless alley running between a modern car park and several large warehouses, few who walk there would ever suspect that the ground beneath their feet was once ‘the worst street in London.’

And what of the young woman whose violent end was met in that dark, grimy little room there, where misery was ‘written all over the place’ and ‘depths below the lowest deep’ were plumbed? We still have no idea who killed her and why, nor do we know for certain who she was either. Known variously as ‘Black Mary,’ ‘Ginger’ and ‘Fair Emma,’ in spite of the tireless and exhaustive efforts of Ripperologists, such as the late Chris Scott, we know as little about her as her contemporaries and confirming even simple details like her hair colour, height and more importantly, her name, has proved to be somewhat problematic. The information we do have, comes to us almost exclusively via her last lover, Joseph Barnett, and has been almost impossible to verify. Census records and official documents have failed to yield any conclusive results.

According to Barnett, Mary Jane Kelly was 25 years of age at the time of her death, which would make her year of birth 1862 or 1863. She was born in Limerick, but moved to Camarthenshire at the age of 6 after her father, John Kelly, found employment at an ironworks there. Kelly came from a large Catholic family, with six brothers and one sister; one elder brother, Henry, nicknamed ‘Johnto’ (although she may have meant that he was called John ‘too,’ like her father) was in the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards. When she was 16, Kelly married a Welsh collier called Davies, who was tragically killed in a mining accident three years later. Early reports after her death suggested that Kelly may have had a child with Davies, but such claims were unsubstantiated and Barnett made no mention of them. Following the death of her husband, Kelly moved to Cardiff to live with her cousin, and after a severe illness landed her in an infirmary for several months, she turned to prostitution to support herself. In 1884, she left Cardiff for London, a decision that would lead to her untimely death.

To begin with, her fresh-face and comely figure helped Kelly find work at a West End brothel, but her fondness for drink was incompatible with her continued employment there. Nevertheless, Barnett recalled how Kelly was apparently much sought after during time at the West End ‘gay house’ and had even accompanied one gentleman on a trip to Paris where she lived the life of ‘a lady,’ she returned after only a few weeks but adopted the name ‘Marie Jeanette,’ as a remnant of her brief time in France.

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A Romantic Imagination: Joseph Merrick at Bedstead Square

‘There is now in a little attic room off one of our attic wards a man named Joseph Merrick, aged about 27, a native of Leicester, so dreadful a sight that he is unable even to come out by daylight to the garden,’ the Chairman of the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Francis Carr Gomm wrote in a letter to The Times published on 30th November 1886. Carr Gomm appealed to those who were touched by Merrick’s circumstances, and inquired not only as to whether a more suitable home could be found for him, but if anyone might be able to offer him financial assistance.

Within days so many generous donations had poured in that Merrick would be provided for, for the remainder of his life. In December 1886, he was moved to his own private rooms in the grounds of the hospital; Merrick’s time there was to give him the security he had never known and contrasting his previous life with his one at Bedstead Square, he revealed in his own short autobiography, that it was a place where he was ‘as comfortable now’ as he was ‘uncomfortable before.’

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester on 5th August 1860. In accordance with Victorian superstitions he believed that the deformity that blighted his life was a result of his mother having been frightened by a procession of circus elephants whilst pregnant. In 1909, it was suggested by the dermatologist Frederick Parker Weber, that Merrick had Neurofibromatosis Type I, however, current medical opinion is that Merrick in fact suffered from Proteus Syndrome; yet the exact nature of what caused his condition remains a mystery. What is known is that his deformities only began to present themselves at around the age of 5. The death of his mother when he was 11, and his cruel treatment at the hands of his stepmother, caused Merrick to leave home and he worked as a hawker on the streets of Leicester until he was no longer physically able to. He subsequently spent three years at a Leicester infirmary where he underwent an operation to remove some of the excess flesh that covered his face. Continue reading

Hungerheart: The Loves Of Christopher St. John

Christopher St. John, or Christabel Marshall as she was known until her conversion to Catholicism in 1912, should be more widely recognised that she in fact is. Although best remembered for her association with the renowned stage actress Dame Ellen Terry (after Terry’s death in 1928, she edited Terry’s correspondence with George Bernard-Shaw in 1931, and her Memoirs in 1933), St. John was much more besides. Not only a writer of some talent, she also openly embraced her sexuality, and refused to succumb to external pressures to lead a more orthodox life as many other lesbian women did at that time. By all accounts, St. John revelled in her love for her own sex and believed it should be celebrated.

Above: A sound recording of Ellen Terry in Romeo and Juliet (1911)

The daughter of the prolific children’s author, Emma Marshall, St. John was born in Exeter in 1871. Academically gifted from an early age, St. John read History at Somerville College, Oxford, before taking up a position as Secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill and less frequently, to her son Winston.  It was through her keen interest in drama that she made her association with Ellen Terry, also becoming her sometime secretary. In addition, St. John’s involvement with Terry was to lead to the most significant meeting of her life. In 1896, she met Edith Craig, Terry’s illegitimate daughter by the architect Edward William Godwin. For St. John the attraction was instant and overwhelming. Craig, who apparently considered herself bisexual, readily reciprocated; and the two made no attempt to hide the true nature of their relationship. By 1899 they had already been living together in Smith Square in Westminster, before a decision, presumably based on Craig’s closeness to her actress mother and her own career as a theatre director and producer with the Lyceum Theatre Company prompted a move to the more convenient Covent Garden.

In 1903, the relationship between the two women was severely shaken. Craig, who still claimed to also be interested in men, had accepted a marriage proposal from the composer Martin Shaw. Craig had met Shaw through her brother, the theatre director and actor Edward Gordon Craig, with whom Shaw had co-founded the Purcell Operatic Society. Upon learning of Craig’s acceptance of the proposal, St. John was devastated. No union ever took place though, after Ellen Terry, who was supportive of Craig and St. John’s relationship, managed to persuade her daughter against the marriage.  St. John would later fictionalise the incident with Shaw, in her novel, Hungerheart: The Story of a Soul. The novel’s main protagonist is Joanna Montolivet, an androgynous girl known within the story as John-Baptist, who falls in love with a character called Sally; their relationship being of a kind in which it was hard to determine, ‘which was the husband and which was the wife in the ménage!!’ John-Baptist is shattered when Sally later embarks upon a relationship with a man, describing the pain of Sally’s betrayal as a, ‘bomb hurtling through the serene air of my Paradise.’ Continue reading