Curiouser and curiouser

Who was the real “Alice” behind Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”?

A look at the life of the dark-haired young girl who inspired the legendary children’s classic

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We’re all familiar with Alice, the dainty, golden-haired protagonist of Lewis Carroll’s children’s classics, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The precocious and inquisitive female character has captivated generations of readers, but who is the “real” Alice? An exhibition at The Morgan Library in New York City, “Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland“, now offers a look behind the creation of Alice and Wonderland and the life of Alice Liddell, the young girl who was Carroll’s inspiration for the story.

Liddell was born in 1852, the third of the 10 children of Henry Liddell and his wife Lorina. Henry Liddell was Dean of Christ Church in Oxford and a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth II; he provided the family a well-to-do Victorian lifestyle.

The story of Alice in Wonderland begins on July 4, 1862, when a 24-year-old mathematics tutor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll), visited Liddell and three of his daughters, Edith (age 8), Alice (age 10), and Lorina (age 13).  This wasn’t Carroll’s first encounter with the girls. He had forged a close bond with the Liddell children, and as an amateur photographer had taken to photographing Alice and her sisters.

To entertain the girls that afternoon, Carroll told a them a story, which he called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.” Over the next few months, Alice would insist that he write the story down for her. “I think because of this insistence, she becomes even more important to the creation of Alice in Wonderland,” Carolyn Vega, curator of The Morgan Library, told Women in the World in a telephone interview. “It’s as Carroll was retelling parts of the story and adding new scenes that it became richer. We would’t have the story if there wasn’t a girl behind the scenes, insisting.”

Carroll gave the carefully handwritten and illustrated “Alice’s Adventures Underground” to Alice Liddell as a Christmas present. Now owned by the British Library, the manuscript is included in the Morgan Library’s exhibition. It’s a rare look at Alice Liddell’s role as muse, and how the character she inspired evolved into the Alice beloved by readers today.

For example, even though the illustrations in the Alice in Wonderland that audiences know today were modeled after a blonde girl and not the dark-haired, dark-eyed Liddell, a trace of her likeness, and Carroll’s affection for her, can still be found in the first draft.

“The last picture in the draft is a head and shoulders drawing of Alice Liddell. [Carroll] has taken one of his photographs and made a portrait of her,” noted Vega. “But, he didn’t feel it was a good enough likeness, so he actually cut out the photo of Alice and pasted it over his own drawing. So, she always knew it to end with a photo of her. The drawing wasn’t discovered until the 1970s.”

Despite the disparity in appearance of the real and fictional Alices, Vega said that the spirit readers recognize in Carroll’s character was very much present in her real-life counterpart. “Untangling the real Alice from the character can be difficult,” Vega said. “They bleed into one another, but what we know about Alice Liddell as a child is that she was precocious and quick-witted, lively, and loved games.”

Alice Liddell as a young woman, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1871. via Wikimedia

Earlier this year, a BBC documentary uncovered some shocking photos among Carroll’s body of work that hint at a darker side: one showed him kissing a young Alice Liddell. Another image was more extreme. It depicted Lorina Liddell, Alice’s older sister, of pubescent age in a full frontal pose that’s described in the documentary as a portrait that “no parent would ever have consented to.” Some experts have speculated that Carroll was a repressed pedophile.

What became of Alice Liddell? She went on to live a completely conventional Victorian life as a society hostess in relative obscurity from the fame surrounding Carroll’s books. She’s rumored to have been the love interest of Prince Leopold, but married Reginald Hargreaves in 1880. The couple had three sons, two of whom were killed in World War II.

Although her life wasn’t remarkably adventurous, there is evidence to suggest that Alice Liddell cherished Lewis Carroll’s stories. She kept “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” with her until her husband’s death in 1926, when she auctioned it to Sotheby’s. In 1932, she travelled to the United States for the centennial celebration of Carroll’s birth. “She arrives in New York by steamer, and is greeted by huge crowds, and people just flooding the streets,” said Vega. “She says something like, ‘I feel like I’m reentering Wonderland by coming to America.’”

Alice Liddell died in 1934, but her legacy is undeniable. Fact or fiction, “Alice” remains an inspiration to readers. “We’re drawn to her strength,” said Vega. “She’s a little girl, thrown into a world of total nonsense, and more often than not, it’s not very kind to her. I think we identify with her, because she just does her best to make sense of it.”

Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland” will be on view at The Morgan Library through October 11, 2015.

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