‘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