While everyone has heard of Alice and Wonderland, little is known of the woman who inspired the book, or its muse. An ambiguous figure, she lived a public yet private life. A fairy tale – it might seem – on the surface, yet tinged with sadness.
Known for being the shadow of her fictional alter ego, Alice Liddell, one of ten children, was born on 4 May 1852. Her father was Henry Liddell, then head of Westminster school who relocated the family to Oxford upon accepting a position as dean at the university. The Liddell children were encouraged to participate in social events, consequently they attended parties and functions held in their parents’ home and brushed soldiers with influential members of Oxford society.
In Oxford, the family met and established contact with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, who worked as a mathematics tutor as well as a writer and photographer. Dodgson spotted Alice and made her a subject of his photographic works, something which has raised much controversy among present day critics. Many photographs were taken of Alice, and as is common with the Victorian perception of children, they show a sugar – coated state of grace. As to how she really felt, though, one does not know.
In a number of the photographs Alice appears in different “guises” created by costumes, portraying figures such as beggar girl and “oriental”. The pictures are haunting and in some cases, disturbing. The focus on “difference” highlights an uncomfortable and queasy fascination that the Victorians had with anyone who was not the “normal” person in society. Individuals with disabilities by no means live free from discrimination today, but we have taken one giant leap forward at least from a much more sinister time when basic humanity in this regard seemed entirely lacking.
A few years after first meeting the Liddells – and in what is now universally known as a critical moment in terms of the book’s success – Carroll travelled on a boat from Oxford with thirteen year old Alice and her two sisters. He told a story revolving around the adventures of Alice after falling down a rabbit hole – to which she expressed enthusiastic approval and asked him to write it down. The rest, as they say, is history. “Alice in Wonderland”, as it is now known, was born.
Dodgson presented Alice with the manuscript for “Alice’s Adventures Underground”. As many will know, the story is somewhat eccentric – even for a children’s book – and scattered. Upon advice taken from a publisher, Dodgson became Lewis Carroll, and the title was changed to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. There is no physical similarity between Liddell and the fictional Alice. Some critics have pointed out figurative connections through the language, but it is noteworthy that the books were dedicated to “Alice Pleasance Liddell”.
In recent years much controversy has been propounded surrounding the relationship between Carroll and Liddell, but there is a suggestion that at the time, a rift was created between the two due to the fact the Liddell family grew suspicious that Carroll wished to marry their daughter. The break in contact corresponds with some missing pages from Dodgson’s diary around this time period.
As Alice grew up, she fell in love with Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold, but it was not to be; she was not regarded aristocratic enough by the Queen, and went on to marry Reginald Hargreaves (a cricket player), who had been a student at the university. They married at Westminster Abbey in 1880. Prince Leopold, who had married a German princess, did not attend the wedding, but there are implications that they remained in love; he named his daughter Alice and became god father to her son, Leopold.
Alice Hargreaves was a mother to three sons who she raised on the family estate in Hampshire, as well as an artist who drew and created paintings. However, her life was not immune from tragedy. Not only were two of her sons killed in the First World War, but she also lost her husband, who could not recover from grief, in 1926. Further, Alice was struggling to upkeep the estate and its costs. This led her to sell the original manuscript that was given to her.
At the age of 80, Alice travelled to New York to attend the centenary of Dodgson’s birth. There, she received an honorary doctorate. One gets the feeling, however, that she was a reluctant “famous person”. She was fluid and intangible, disappearing into her fictional counterpart. And though the “real” Alice lies hidden beneath, perhaps that is the way she would have liked it. After all, it was her love of dreams and the imagination that created “Alice”, something she will pass on for generations.