Local Lives - Alice Liddell
By Jane Curran
Who was the little girl for whom Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass?
Until her death in 1934 at the age of 82, Alice Liddell Hargreaves had to bear the burden of being known to the world as Alice in Wonderland, the heroine of the stories written for and about her by Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics tutor at Christ Church, the college of which her father was Dean in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Alice was born in 1852, the third of the ten children of Henry Liddell and his wife Lorina. At that time he was headmaster of Westminster School, but in 1855 he was appointed Dean (Head) of Christ Church, where he had been an undergraduate, and the family moved to Oxford, where work immediately began on refurbishing the Dean’s Lodgings in Tom Quad. The Dean and Mrs Liddell were to become the stars of Oxford society, and many parties, receptions and musical soirees were held in the spacious Deanery over the following years. Alice and her siblings were encouraged from an early age to attend some of these events, and to learn how to mingle and converse intelligently with the many eminent guests who were present. Mrs Liddell, sometimes maliciously referred to later as “the Kingfisher”, was anxious that her daughters should make good marriages when the time came, and training in social skills could not begin too soon.
However, Alice and her older and younger sisters, Lorina and Edith, were only little girls and had plenty of time to play and to escape from the watchful eye of their governess, Miss Prickett. It was while they were playing in the Deanery garden on April 25th 1856 that the twenty four year old Charles Dodgson first met Alice, and marked the date in his diary as being of special significance. He was a keen photographer, and had been photographing the Cathedral, and the trio were attracted by what he was doing, so he also tried to take pictures of them, but they were too impatient to sit still. Dean Liddell shared his interest in this new art, so it was not long before he was invited to take the first of the many photographs of the growing family, and of Alice in particular. He was at one time almost as famous for his photographic portraits of children and well known contemporaries as he was as a writer. Dodgson had a set of rooms near Tom Tower and fitted them out with a studio and dark room. He kept a box of dressing-up clothes for his subjects to wear and plenty of ingenious games, toys and puzzles to keep them amused while he set up his camera. A famous early picture shows the six year old Alice as a beggar girl, barefoot and in a short ragged dress, and another is of Alice and Lorina in oriental costume.
Not only did the girls enjoy the photographic sessions with Dodgson, they also went on outings and boating parties with him – usually accompanied, of course, by their governess. Alice particularly liked going to the newly opened University Museum to look at the dinosaur skeletons, stuffed animals and insects there, especially the mouldering remains of the Dodo and the large picture of this very odd looking extinct bird. Dodgson had a stammer, and sometimes had trouble saying his own name, thus in her mind he became linked with the Dodo, and indeed in Alice in Wonderland the Dodo is Dodgson himself.
Alice as usually portrayed in fiction
On these outings, he had always made up stories to entertain his young companions, but it was during a boat trip up the Thames to Godstow on July 4th 1862 that he began to tell the story of Alice and her adventures underground. This time Alice herself was at the centre of the tale, and she would remember that afternoon for the rest of her life. She begged him to write the story down for her, and this he did gradually, expanding the text and illustrating the manuscript with his own drawings. It was his Christmas present to her in 1864, and the following year was published but with a new title suggested by her father, Alice in Wonderland, and illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, who used another child as his model. Far from having long fair hair held back with an Alice band, Alice Liddell, as can be seen from photographs, had short straight dark hair. Many of the characters and happenings in the book and in the sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass, were based on people, places and events in Oxford that were familiar to Alice, but viewed through the prism of Dodgson’s imagination.
He saw the Liddell children almost every day, but these meetings came to an abrupt halt in the summer of 1863. The reason is not known, and a page in his diary which might have revealed the answer was cut out after his death, but Dodgson did not mention them again in his diary until the following December, and the next summer Mrs Liddell forbade any further excursions on the river. In May 1865, when Alice was twelve, he noted that she seemed “…changed a good deal, and hardly for the better…” Childhood was ending for his dream child and with it their easy friendship.
Alice grew up to be both beautiful and cultured, and she soon caught the eye of Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son and then an undergraduate at Christ Church. They fell in love, but a marriage was not to be. The Queen insisted that he must marry a princess, and he did so, but only after Alice had married Reginald Hargreaves, who had also been a student at the college. The wedding took place in 1880 in Westminster Abbey, but a notable absentee was Prince Leopold. He later married a German princess and in 1883 had a daughter who was named Alice. He stood as godfather to Alice Hargreaves’ second son, Leopold, who had been born a few weeks earlier, and thus the memory of their love lived on in the names of their children.
Mr and Mrs Hargreaves set up home in Cuffnells, the country house on the Hargreaves estate in Hampshire. Alice had been well taught by her mother and had no trouble running a household with numerous servants, arranging balls and shooting parties, as well as bringing up three sons. As a girl she had had John Ruskin as her art master, and so she also continued to draw, paint, and to do woodcarvings. A panel carved by her for the door of a church is now at St. Frideswide’s church in Osney and depicts a scene from the life of Oxford’s patron saint.
Terrible grief struck the family when the two older boys, Alan and Leopold (who was known as Rex), were killed during the First World War; Reginald never recovered from the shock and died in 1926. Alice herself still led an active social and cultural life, but the cost of maintaining Cuffnells was becoming a worrisome burden. In 1928 she arranged the sale through Sotheby’s of some of her Alice memorabilia, including the manuscript given to her so long ago by Charles Dodgson. It was sold for £15,400 to an American dealer, but in 1948 was given back to the United Kingdom by wellwishers from the United States and is now in the British Museum.
In 1932, to mark the centenary of Dodgson’s birth, Alice was invited to New York by the University of Columbia to attend a Lewis Carroll exhibition and to receive an honorary doctorate. This was an exciting and exhausting trip for her, but almost more draining was the deluge of letters from Alice fans that followed and the intrusion of journalists. When she lay dying in 1934 there were maudlin articles in the press, and her death was marked by an obituary in The Times. She was cremated at Golders Green and her ashes interred in the family grave in Lyndhurst, Hampshire.
last updated: 21/05/2009 at 12:03
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