This spring marks 150 years since Lewis Carroll wrote a story to entertain his friend’s children – little did he know it would become one of the best loved novels of all time. We meet the girl who inspired literature’s most surreal journey and who spent the final days of her eventful life in Kent.
In early 1863, the author Charles Dodgson – better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll – put the finishing touches to a children’s story that he had provisionally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. He sent the manuscript to fellow writer George Macdonald, whose children were delighted with the bizarre tale, so George urged his friend to seek a publisher and two years later, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland made its debut.
The idea had been planted in Charles’ mind the previous summer, during a lazy day spent on the river in Oxford with children from the Liddell family, with whom he had been good friends for several years. Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, and his wife Lorina had 1o children, the fourth of whom was a self-possessed girl called Alice. That fateful day Alice prompted the writer to entertain them as they rowed to their picnic spot. Charles wove such an enchanting story about the adventures of a girl called Alice who fell down a rabbit hole and found herself in a fantasy world, that Alice asked him to write it down for her.
Charles began the task and eventually decided to write it as a proper book. Such was the success of the novel that Charles followed it with a sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in 1871.
There has been much speculation over the nature of Charles’ relationship with Alice (although there is no evidence to suggest it was anything other than platonic) for his friendship with the Liddells did not last even to see the publication of the book. In June 1863 there appeared to be an abrupt breakdown in their rapport and the rift was never really healed; intriguingly, the page from Charles’ diary covering June 27 to 29 was removed at some point.
His diaries from the period April 1858 to May 1862, which could have shed some light on his relations with the family, are also missing. In 1996 an enigmatic new piece of evidence came to light, in the form of a note apparently written by one of Charles’ nieces, summarising the contents of the missing diary page from June 1863. The note suggested that Charles had been accused of using his friendship with the Liddell children to court either their governess or the eldest daughter, Lorina.
In later years Charles played down the significance of Alice Liddell as an inspiration, saying he had not based his heroine on any real child. But he dedicated both books to ‘Alice Pleasance Liddell’, he gave the fictional Alice’s birthday as being May 4, same as the real girl, and in Through the Looking-Glass he wrote an acrostic poem in which the first letter of each line happens to spell out Alice Liddell’s full name.
Throughout her life, Alice did not seem as keen to cut ties with Charles’ work. As a young woman she set out on the Grand Tour of Europe with her sisters, Lorina and Edith, and was romantically linked to Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold, before marrying cricketer Reginald Hargreaves in Westminster Abbey in 1880. They named one of their three sons Caryl, though Alice denied any connection to Charles’ pen name. Financial pressures caused by her husband’s death in 1926 prompted Alice to sell the original manuscript of Alice’ s Adventures Under Ground that Charles had given her when she was 12, fetching a remarkable £15,400 (nearly £700,000 in today’s money). The manuscript later found its way to Columbia University in the US and Alice attended an event there to mark the centenary of Charles’ birth in 1932. It can now be found at the British Library.
Alice spent most of her life in the Lyndhurst area of the New Forest but in her old age she moved to Westerham, apparently to be near her sister, Rhoda. She rented The Breaches on Vicarage Hill for the last few years of her life, moving in with Rhoda at Hosey Rigge on Hosey Hill when Alice fell ill. She died on November 16, 1934, at the age of 82 and she was buried in the family plot at Lyndhurst. Here’s hoping she had the chance to visit Wonderland at last.