OXFORD TO WONDERLAND

Posted on 12 June 2019 By Rose Mulready

Ever wonder what sparked Lewis Carroll’s imagination while he was writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland©? Deborah Jones traces the real-life origins of his fantastic tale.

Charles Dodgson, the man the world knows as Lewis Carroll, had a lively social life in Oxford, where he was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College. Among his circle was Robinson Duckworth, a cleric and highly regarded teacher, whom Dodgson met via the Oxford Choral Society. They developed a warm bond and Dodgson sometimes invited Duckworth to go boating on the river Isis to “help row my friends”, as a letter written in June 1862 puts it.

The friends were Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell, young daughters of Christ Church’s Dean, Henry George Liddell. Dodgson had become close to the Liddell family after taking up his position at Christ Church in 1856.

On the afternoon of 4 July 1862, Duckworth – presumably on oars duty – listened as Dodgson entertained the youngsters with a story about a girl and her surreal exploits in an underground world. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born.

“I remember turning around and saying, ‘Dodgson, is this an extempore romance of yours?’ And he replied, ‘Yes, I’m inventing as we go along’,” Duckworth recalled many years later.

A greatly expanded and revised version of the tale was published in 1865. It didn’t take long for people to start wondering who and what had sparked Dodgson’s fantastical characters and setting.

In many ways Duckworth’s term ‘extempore romance’ is the key. Dodgson was indeed making things up on the spot as the boat glided along the river from Oxford to Godstow. His imagination was sparked by his friends and the world in which they lived.  

Jill Ogai, Adam Bull and artists of The Australian Ballet. Photography Kate Longley

Alice Liddell was a starting point for the book’s heroine. She was only four when Dodgson made her family’s acquaintance and was one of his favourite photographic subjects. One of Dodgson’s best-known images of her is as a very self-possessed beggar girl, taken in 1858 when she was only six.

She was ten at the time of the boating excursion and it was she who urged Dodgson to write his story down. She was a bright and clearly confident girl, comfortable in the presence of adults. John Ruskin tutored her in art and she spoke French well. Although she looked nothing like the blonde Alice depicted by John Tenniel in his illustrations for the book, it isn’t hard to discern Alice Liddell’s spiritedness in her literary counterpart.

Other connections are looser, as befits a fantasy world, but enjoyable to unearth nevertheless. At first Dodgson called his story Alice’s Adventures Under Ground; he signed a facsimile copy of this version for Duckworth with the words “The Duck from the Dodo”, explicitly acknowledging source of these characters in Alice’s Adventures.

Dodgson had a slight speech impediment (he called it a hesitation) and was prone to introduce himself as Do-do-Dodgson. The skeleton of a dodo at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History came into play too. It could be seen alongside other museum exhibits such as an eaglet, a lory, a duck, flamingos and hedgehogs. In Alice’s Adventures Lorina Liddell was the Lory and her younger sister Edith the Eaglet. The flamingos and hedgehogs made their way into the Queen’s game of croquet.

Artists and guest artists of The Australian Ballet. Photography Kate Longley

Something of Dodgson can be seen in the White Rabbit, who appropriately enough is the character who leads Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland as he fusses about being late. Writing in his diary, Dodgson castigated himself for continued unpunctuality.

It makes sense, then, that in the garden party scenes that bookend his ballet version of Alice’s Adventures, Christopher Wheeldon doubles Dodgson with the White Rabbit, even though Alice’s father also likely contributed to the character. Dean Liddell would leave the Christ Church dining hall via an unobtrusive panelled door known as his ‘rabbit hole’.

Two people have been associated with the Hatter, as Dodgson called the character (devotees of the book started calling him the Mad Hatter after the Mad Tea Party over which he presides, and the name stuck). Alice Liddell wrote about walking the dog of a man called Thomas Randall who was, by profession, a maker of hats. The big money, though, is on salesman Theophilus Carter. He “wore top hats with price labels attached by way of advertising them”, writes Edward Wakefield in Lewis Carroll – The Man and his Circle (2014).

The deeply eccentric Carter was an inventor who exhibited an unusual alarm clock at the Crystal Palace in 1851: it worked by tipping the sleeper out of bed. Was Dodgson remembering this when he gave the Hatter an abiding interest in his watch and the vagaries of time?

Ako Kondo and Drew Hedditch. Photography Kate Longley

Wheeldon may have been a little unfair to the real Alice’s mother, who in his ballet fires Jack the garden boy for stealing a tart (he becomes the Knave of Hearts in Wonderland). Wheeldon turns her into the malevolent and narcissistic Queen of Hearts; Mrs Liddell was a busy mother of eleven children, two of whom died young. 

Dodgson’s book glistens with charming details drawn from reality, fragments plucked from here and there to make a new, imaginary whole. He had a wonderful eye for absurdities in the people he knew and the landscape around him was an equally fertile source of material.

One of his most delightful inspirations features in the Hatter’s Mad Tea Party. The dozy Dormouse tells a story about three sisters – siblings with names that refer to the Liddell girls – who live in something that sounds utterly bizarre: a treacle well. Alice at first claims such a thing couldn’t exist and then says: “I dare say there may be one.” She is right. A well named exactly that exists at the church of St Margaret in Binsey and was visited by people hoping to heal an illness; treacle is an ancient term for medicine.

It is not a coincidence that the vicar of Binsey, Thomas Jones Prout, was prone to falling asleep during meetings.  

And where is Binsey? Not far from Godstow, the destination of Charles Dodgson, Robinson Duckworth and three young girls as they headed out on the river one July day in 1862, now immortalised in literary history.

Ako Kondo, Valerie Tereshchenko, Steven Heathcote and artists of The Australian Ballet. Photography Jeff Busby