The real Alice in Wonderland

Jan 2016
Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream-the three little maidens and I
"Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream-the three little maidens and I"

Today (27 January) marks Lewis Carroll's birthday, the celebrated author of the much loved books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

Alice in Wonderland features on the Kumon Recommended Reading List and we encourage our students to join Alice on her adventures down the rabbit hole.

It's difficult to imagine such a weird and wonderful story could have been inspired by real life. However, as we discuss the story behind the book, you will see that this is in fact the case.

For many of us, when we envision Alice we see a blonde-haired girl in a blue dress; the original illustrations drawn by John Tenniel appear to depict a blonde girl and this image is reinforced in the classic Disney animation of the story. However, the 'real' Alice, Alice Liddell, was in fact a brunette with a short bob and fringe. So how did this Alice inspire the character we know today?

Whilst at Christ Church College in Oxford, Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, met the Liddell family as the father had become the college Dean. Carroll became a close friend of the family and spent a lot of time with the children, often taking them on rowing trips along the Thames.

It was on one of these rowing trips on 4 July 1862 that Alice (the character, not the girl!) first fell down the rabbit hole; whilst on an outing with the three Liddell daughters and Reverend Robinson Duckworth, Carroll created Wonderland. He often created stories for the girls but, on this occasion, Alice begged Carroll to write the story down for her as she had enjoyed it so much.

"Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream- the three little maidens and I - and many a fairy tale had been extemporised for their benefit yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her."
Lewis Carroll; The Theatre, April, 1887.

And so Alice was born. There are also several other hints throughout the story that link Alice Liddell (and her family) to Wonderland; in the book The Annotated Alice, written by Martin Gardner, a number of suggestions are made:

In Chapter 3, A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale, the Dormouse tells a story of three sisters called Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; Martin Gardner suggests these are the Liddell sisters: Elsie is L.C. (Lorina Charlotte), Tillie is Edith (her nickname was Matilda), and Lacie is an anagram of Alice.

The Lory and Eaglet are a reference to Alice Liddell's sisters Lorina and Edith.

The Mock Turtle speaks of a drawling-master, who came once a week to teach "Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils"; this is a reference to art critic John Ruskin, who came once a week to the Liddell house to teach drawing, sketching, and painting in oils.

Carroll himself is caricatured as the Dodo, as he often stuttered when he spoke, and common lore suggests he sometimes pronounced his last name as Dodo-Dodgson.

So Happy Birthday to Lewis Carroll! Next time you take a trip down the rabbit hole, maybe you'll spot some other references to the real Alice and her sisters. You might even be inspired to write a story based on someone you know!