The Story Behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice-in-Wonderland-illustration-568159

Alice in Wonderland illustration

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was not a children’s author.  Not an author at all.  He was a mathematician, and was more at home with numbers than words.  Dodgson was a bachelor living in the college town of Oxford, England.  In 1856, Christ Church, where he was a member, had a new dean appointed.  Henry Liddell, a classical scholar of some renown, and his wife and children moved into town.  Dodgson and the Liddells struck up a friendship, and was especially friendly with their children.  Although he had none of his own, Dodgson seemed to have a way with children and charmed them with his ability to tell whimsical stories.

One bright summer day in July 1862, the Liddell’s second daughter, Alice, and her two sisters were out on an adventure.  They went rowing with Dodgson and his friend Reverend Robinson Duckworth and stopped for a picnic along the banks of the river.  To amuse them on the journey, Dodgson made up a story about a girl called Alice who followed a white rabbit down a rabbit hole.  He was so detailed about the adventures young Alice had there.  The real Alice Liddell enjoyed the stories so much, she asked Dodgson to write it down.  He complied both adding more story and some original illustrations.  Additional stories were added, and eventually he called it Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.  Dodgson created a manuscript which was gifted to Alice for Christmas 1864.  The dedication declared it, “A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day”.  And with that simple boat trip, a literary classic was born.

This was the manuscript was shown to Dodgson’s friend, the Scottish author George Macdonald and his family.  The Macdonald children were likewise enchanted by the adventures of Alice, and Macdonald encouraged Dodgson to seek out a publisher.  After some searching and a name change, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published by Macmillan in 1865.  Dodgson published under a pseudonym- Lewis Carroll.  It was the translation into Latin of Dodgson’s first and middle name- Charles Lutwidge into Carolus Ludovicus.

Cover of the 1898 edition

Cover of the 1898 edition

However, being Alice in wonderland did not do much for Alice Liddell.  Something happened in 1863, which drove Dodgson and the Liddell family apart.  We don’t have much information about this as the relevant pages in Dodgson’s diary were removed later by a family member.  Robert Douglas-Fairhurst writes charitably, “unless he was merely the victim of an unchecked rumor rippling around Oxford, Carroll certainly seems to have said or done something to disturb the Liddells.”  Dodgson had an affinity for children, especially young girls. That coupled with photographs found later, which he took of young girls in the nude certainly adds fuel to the fire that something inappropriate went on.  Douglas-Fairhurst seems to draw the conclusion that Dodgson did not act on his desires, but that is also only speculation.  What we do know is the last photograph Dodgson took of Alice Liddell shows a young woman who looks deeply depressed.

Alice grew up to be a beautiful young woman, who attracted the attention of many suitors including Queen Victoria’s youngest son.  She eventually married Reginald Hargreaves and they lived together until Reginald’s death in 1926.  Alice fell upon hard times and sold the original manuscript she had received for Christmas 1864 at auction at Southeby’s.  She received the tidy sum of 15,400 pounds, which is 450,000 pounds in today’s money.  She also received an honorary degree from Columbia University in 1932, solely for being the inspiration for the book.

Sadly before she died in 1934, Alice remarked she was “tired of being Alice in Wonderland”.  Hopefully, she found some peace.
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