In 1856, the classical scholar Henry Liddell, of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, moved into Christ Church, Oxford, where he had been appointed dean. With him were his wife and their sizeable brood of children, the most interesting of whom in the light of developments was their second daughter, Alice. The family soon became close friends with one of the Christ Church bachelor dons, the mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Himself the eldest brother of eight siblings, Dodgson got on well with children, who liked him and relished his ability to tell them strange, exotic and engagingly whimsical stories.
On that particular July day, when Alice was ten, she and two of her sisters set out from Folly Bridge in a rowing boat with the 30-year-old Dodgson and a friend of his, a Trinity College don called Robinson Duckworth, along the Isis for a picnic at Godstow. On the way the girls asked Dodgson to tell them a story and he responded with a tale he made up as he went along about the fantastic world that a girl called Alice discovered when she went down a rabbit-hole. The real Alice was so delighted that she asked him to write it down for her, which he presently did, with some extra episodes added, as well as his own illustrations. He later showed Alice’s Adventures Under Ground to his friend, the Scottish author George Macdonald, whose children were so taken with it that Dodgson was encouraged to look for a publisher. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland duly came out from Macmillan in 1865 under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, which was arrived at by a complicated process that involved turning the names Charles Lutwidge into Latin as Carolus Ludovicus and inverting them. The book had the benefit of amazing illustrations by John Tenniel. Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There followed in 1871. The two works are among the most popular and most famous children’s books in the English language and, like the best children’s literature, are also loved by adults. An authority on the subject and a children’s writer himself, the late Roger Lancelyn Green, called them ‘the perfect creation of the logical and mathematical mind applied to the pure and unadulterated amusement of children…’
There is no doubt that Alice Liddell gave her name to the fictional Alice, though Dodgson always denied that he intended a portrait of her. The fictional Alice had the same birthday as the real one, May 4th and, in the poem in Through the Looking Glass that starts ‘A boat beneath a sunny sky,’ the first letter of each line spells out the real Alice’s full name – Alice Pleasance Liddell. Incidentally, it also seems that the character of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass owed something to the Liddell children’s alarming governess.
The friendship between the Liddells and Dodgson had broken down in 1863, for reasons that are not clear – the relevant page in his diary was cut out by one of his descendants – but it may be that Mrs Liddell was uneasy about him and Alice. Polite relations were resumed after a few months, but the earlier warmth did not return.
Still to come in 1876 was another masterpiece, The Hunting of the Snark. Dodgson also published other volumes of poetry, as well as learned books on mathematics, and he invented gadgets, puzzles and games, including a forerunner of Scrabble. He remained a bachelor to his death in 1898, a few days before his 66th birthday. Quantities of ink have been spilled on what exactly was the nature of his feelings for Alice Liddell and the many other young girls he knew and loved. He was an excellent photographer and his liking for taking photos of young girls in the nude makes it hard not to think that there was a deep core of sexual feeling there, but the evidence strongly suggests that this was never openly manifested and that he never molested any of them.
Alice Liddell grew up a beauty and in the 1870s she seems to have attracted Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, but nothing came of it, though he was later godfather to one of Alice’s sons. In 1880 she married a man called Reginald Hargreaves. Dodgson sent them a wedding present. When Hargreaves died in 1926 Alice was so short of money that she put the manuscript of Alice’s underground adventures that Dodgson had given her up for auction at Sotheby’s. It fetched £15,400 (equivalent to £450,000 or more today). In her last years she said she was ‘tired of being Alice in Wonderland’. She died in 1934 at the age of 82.