An animation of Lewis Carroll reading The Jabberwocky, a favourite poem from Alice in Wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland

Who was the real Alice in Wonderland

We are so used to seeing the stylised Alice costume that most people probably think that was the picture that Lewis Carroll had in mind when he wrote his famous books. The blue dress and white apron are iconic, although the modern dress is probably somewhat shorter to that of Victorian times. But few appreciate how diferent our modern take is on the original story, and perhaps many do not know that Alice was probably a real child known to Carroll, and not only that, but it was her insistence that eventually persuaded him to commit the story to print.

Alice costume

Alice: courtesy of
PrincessAshley on Flickr

The real Alice was probably Alice Liddell, and when Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865 she was thirteen years old. Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell who was the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Dean of Christ Church and headmaster of Westminster School. Lewis Carroll, or to give hm his real name, Charles Dodgson, knew him from Christ Church, the College at which he taught, and he became a friend of the family.

On an afternoon in July 1862, Dodgson with another clergy friend, went in a boat on the Thames with Alice and her older sister Lorina and her younger sister Edith. As they rowed a five mile stretch, Charles made up a story to pass the time. It told of a bored little girl who went off in search of adventure. Alice in Wonderland was born. The story was later expanded and embellished before Dodgson, assuming the pen name of Lewis Carroll, committed it to print three years later.

There is some disagreement amongst scholars as to whether Alice in Wonderland was in fact meant to be Alice Liddell. Carroll himself, in later life, said that the story was not based upon a real person. Carroll's own drawings that acompanied the manuscript did not seem to resemble Alice Liddell, although it has been suggested that they were drawings of the younger sister, Edith. The book, when it went to print was illustrated by John Tenniel, and it is not known who he used as a basis for the drawing, nor whether he was influenced by Carroll. Nevertheless there is some evidence that Alice was indeed Alice Liddell

There are some interesting links to Alice Liddell in the book, however, and seem a little unlikely to have been just coincidences.

Firstly they were set on her birthday (4 May) and half birthday (4 November). In Through the Looking Glass, Alice declares that she is seven and a half years exactly, the same as Liddell on that date. The book is also dedicated to Alice Pleasance Liddell; but by far the most intriguing connection is a poem that appears in Looking Glass which goes like this:

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July--

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear--

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream--
Lingering in the golden gleam--
Life, what is it but a dream?

If you take the first letter on each line all the way through the poem, the name Alice Pleasance Liddell is spelt out. So whether Alice in Wonderland was Alice Liddell is something you must decide yourself.

So what did the real Alice Liddell look like, the girl many people like to think was the real Alice? Fortunately we have a photograph, thanks to Dodgson's other hobby, photography. In the picture Alice is on the right, with Lorina in the middle and Edith on the left. In the second picture Alice is dressed like a beggar, but it is the first photograph that intrigues me.

Alice Liddell and sisters

Alice Liddell with Sisters

Alice Liddell

Alice Liddell

Here we have no suggestion of the blue frock and white pinafore of the modern image, nor the long blonde locks, which seem popular from the Disney version. This Alice had short, dark hair, and was dressed much as any other Victorian girls from well to do families would have dressed. I don't suppose it really matters that our modern take on it is not all that accurate, it is more important that the story lives on.

Alice drawing

Alice drawing by John Tenniel

There are some people who suggest that the relationship which Dodgson had with Alice was inappropriate, and that his love of photographing young girls was unhealthy. I think those critics miss the point by not understanding the times and the culture. The Victorians may have been our ancestors, but they were also different people to us. They thought differently, acted differently, and lived their lives differently. Some of the things they did, we find odd today, but they were just different. For example, they regularly took photographs of dead people, which they propped up with the aid of stands, and these were termed mourning photographs. We would find that kind of photograph distasteful, and perhaps offensive, but the Victorians looked at it differently, maybe because they lived daily with the spectre of death. Similarly, nobody would have even considered that photographing a child was wrong. It was a much more innocent time. Certainly Dodgson liked children, and probably mainly liked girls rather than boys, but it was almost certainly an entirely innocent pleasure, that sadly has been lost by our modern witchhunting obsession. Even those who have attempted to make something out of nothing have been unable to find any real evidence of inappropriate behaviour and have based their accusations on suggestion and inuendo.

Alice Liddell went on to marry, and lived to the ripe old age of 82, dying in 1934. Lewis Carroll drifted apart from her around the time of the publication of Adventures, probably accelerated by a political rift between Carroll and her Father, caused by College politics. Alice later had three sons, two of whom died in the first World War.

So it is not clear whether there ever was a real Alice in Wonderland, nor what she really looked like, but in the end, it must come down to how we see her in our mind as we read the book.

For those interested in exploring the subject more we recommend this link.