The real Alice

The real Alice Liddell at age 7

The real Alice Liddell, age 7

This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. I read it as a child and enjoyed it, but it is way more fun to read as an adult. It’s full of puns and in-jokes and references that go over the head of a child. We miss a lot of the jokes ourselves because we’re so removed from a time when children had to memorize poems like this:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower…

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

For me, the only illustrations are the original, Tenniel ones. Did you know the artist put himself in the book as the White Knight? And there are many other visual jokes. Tenniel worked with Lewis Carroll on the illustrations– Carroll had done some himself, which are interesting to compare with the ones we are used to.

Mary Hilton Badcock, possibly the model for Tenniel's idea of Alice.

Mary Hilton Badcock, probably the model for Tenniel’s idea of Alice.

Lewis Carroll, in real life, was a mathematics lecturer at Oxford, and the real Alice’s father was dean of Christ Church College, far above him on the university ladder. But the dean’s children loved him and one day he took three of them out for a row and little Alice, then seven, demanded a story “with nonsense in it.” This was the origin of Alice in Wonderland.

Although it is clear that Charles Dodgson liked little girls too much– yet we are in Victorian times here, no actual evidence shows bad behavior on his part toward Alice, and although Alice’s parents put a stop to his visiting their children for reasons Alice never found out (a BBC documentary seems to show that any parent would have), she herself had the friendliest memory of him till the end of her life, and later wrote that she was sad for years that he had stopped coming. As an adult, they corresponded once or twice and I recall his saying that Alice was the politest child he ever met. You can see an echo of this all throughout Alice in Wonderland, when Alice is polite to caterpillars, dormice, mad hatters, pigs, and even the Queen of Hearts, who wants to cut off her head.


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