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Alice Liddell's Adventures in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland

Updated on August 16, 2017
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Peter is an amateur historian and a student of languages. Retired he spends much of his free time writing historical books and articles.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

When Lewis met Alice

It was the 25th of April when the Mad Hatter met Alice in Wonderland. Or, to put it another way; Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was photographing Christchurch cathedral in Oxford, England with his friend Reginald Southey, when he met Alice Pleasance Liddell. (Liddell is pronounced to rhyme with little) He was 24 and she was approaching her 4th birthday.
Dodgson was a mathematician whose hobby was photography. He was also a student of logic and enjoyed forming riddles, puzzles and excelled at word play. (He wrote under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, Lewis being a form of Lutwidge and Carroll being a form of Charles.)
Alice was the fourth child of the Dean of Christchurch college. Dodgson and Alice became friends, and as she grew older he would take Alice and her two sisters on rowing trips and picnics. During this time he would entertain the children with stories. In Particular, the story that he originally published as; “Alice’s adventures underground.” The adventure story starts with Alice following a white rabbit down a rabbit burrow:
“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again. The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well. Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled `ORANGE MARMALADE', but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.”

So it begins and so too does the tale of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland.

Alice Pleasance Liddell

A photo of Alice dressed as a beggar maid for a play.
A photo of Alice dressed as a beggar maid for a play. | Source

The Liddell Riddle

His affection for Alice is evident from the references to her in the story. Not just the fact that the heroine is Alice but in little clues here and there. For example, look at this poem at the end of the sequel “Alice through the looking glass”
"A boat beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,"
It is a charming poem but look at the first letter of each line, see how it spells ALICE. If you read the complete poem the letters will spell “Alice Pleasance Liddell”
Another interesting side to the book is that it is filled with references that would have been easily grasped in Victorian England but would have to be explained today. For example; when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty and reaches to shake hands, Humpty extends one finger. In Victorian England when you shook hands with someone you felt to be of inferior social status it was customary to extend just two fingers. Humpty Dumpty, in his great pride, only extends one finger to Alice.
Because of the prose and the wordplay there have been suspicions of a romantic attachment by Dodgson to little Alice. He used to photograph her often as he did her sisters and many other young girls. This was quite acceptable in Victorian times. The children were always chaperoned and there has never been the suggestion that an improper act took place. However Alice’s parents did become concerned over the relationship. Eventually Mrs. Liddell stopped Alice from seeing him. What exactly happened has become known as the “Liddell Riddle” Mrs. Liddell destroyed all of his letters to Alice. Important parts of his diary from 1858 to 1862 were torn out by his family after his death. A number of theories have been presented;
A romantic interest in Alice,
Speculation that he attempted to propose marriage to Lorina, Alice’s older sister That he was only befriending the children in order to get close to Miss Picketts, the children’s governess.
The full truth we may never know. After 1862 they saw each other rarely though they did keep in touch. In “Alice through the looking glass” the white knight, her protector, is generally believed to be a representation of Dodgson and near the end where Alice is about to become a Queen, in other words to grow up, he gives a heartfelt goodbye. Read in that light it becomes quite a moving passage.

Alice in Wonderland, The Movie

Rhymes and Riddles

Alice in Wonderland is full of riddles and puzzles as is the relationship between Dodgson and Alice, often referred to as the “Liddell Riddle” Within the story perhaps the most famous riddle is when the Mad Hatter asks Alice “Why is a Raven like a writing desk?” As with most of his puzzles, Dodgson refused to give the answer. Over the years many possibilities have arisen; from the corny “Because there’s a B in Both” to the profound and almost certainly the correct answer; “Because Poe wrote on both”
Just to give an example of his mischievousness with wordplay, here is an example of a typical puzzle that he wrote for his friends;

“Six friends, and their six wives, are staying in the same hotel; and they all walk out daily, in parties of various size and composition. To ensure variety in these daily walks, they have agree to observe the following Rules:---
(1) If Acres is with (i.e. is in the same party with) his wife, and Barry with his, and Eden with Mrs. Hall, Cole must be with Mrs. Dix;
(2) If Acres is with his wife, and Hall with his, and Barry with Mrs. Cole, Dix must not be with Mrs. Eden;
(3) If Cole and Dix and their wives are all in the same party, and Acres not with Mrs. Barry, Eden must not be with Mrs. Hall;
(4) If Acres is with his wife, and Dix with his, and Barry not with Mrs. Cole, Eden must be with Mrs. Hall;
(5) If Eden is with his wife, and Hall with his, and Cole with Mrs. Dix, Acres must not be with Mrs. Barry;
(6) If Barry and Cole and their wives are all in the same party, and Eden not with Mrs. Hall, Dix must be with Mrs. Eden.
The Problem is to prove that there must be, every day, at least one married couple who are not in the same party”

A word of warning, his puzzles would contain at least one superfluous phrase.

Alice through the looking glass etc.

Alice in Wonderland Collection – All Four Books: Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Hunting of the Snark and Alice Underground (Illustrated)
Alice in Wonderland Collection – All Four Books: Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Hunting of the Snark and Alice Underground (Illustrated)

For those who have not read the full collection of Dodgson's whimsical stories. Here is the opportunity to sir back, relax and follow the white rabbit.


Symbolic Logic

He wrote a number of books aside from the “Alice” ones. Although they were concerned with the rather dry subjects of Logic and mathematics he was still able to inject his whimsical, almost childlike, nature into them. An example is this introduction to a book he wrote on symbolic logic;

“The learner, who wishes to try the question fairly, whether this little book does, or does not, supply the materials for a most interesting mental recreation, is earnestly advised to adopt the following Rules:

1. Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark `This is much too hard for me!', and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights . . .
2. Don't begin any fresh Chapter, or Section, until you are certain that you thoroughly understand the whole book up to that point and that you have worked, correctly, most if not all of the examples which have been set . . . Otherwise, you will find your state of puzzlement get worse and worse as you proceed till you give up the whole thing in utter disgust.
3. When you come to a passage you don't understand, read it again: if you still don't understand it, read it again: if you fail, even after three readings, very likely your brain is getting a little tired In that case, put the book away, and take to other occupations, and next day, when you come to it fresh, you will very likely find that it is quite easy.
4. If possible, find some genial friend, who will read the book along with you, and will talk over the difficulties with you. Talking is a wonderful smoother-over of difficulties. When I come upon anything—in Logic or in any other hard subject—that entirely puzzles me, I find it a capital plan to talk it over, aloud, even when I am all alone. One can explain things so clearly to one's self! And then you know, one is so patient with one's self: one never gets irritated at one's own stupidity!”

That’s not bad advice for reading anything. It may even be good advice for reading Alice in Wonderland. Alice’s journey, though on the face of it a charming child’s tale, is a journey through the world of symbolic logic. A good example is when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty;
“When I use a word” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty dumpty, “Which is to be master-that’s all.”
The above quote presents a position in logic known as Nominalism. Basically it is the tendency of the ruling elite to decide on the meaning of a word. An example in recent times would be the attitude of the British Government towards those who warred against their government in the 70’s; in Ireland where the government opposed them they were called terrorists, in South America where the British were mainly neutral, they were called Urban Guerillas, in Afghanistan where they were fighting the Communist government, they were called Freedom Fighters. It all depends who is the master.

When Alice was 20 there was a rumor of a romance between her and Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, but she was a commoner, marriage would have been out of the question. When Alice eventually did marry, she named her first son Leopold and he named his daughter Alice. Perhaps they were both thinking of the sage advice that the Duchess gives Alice in chapter 9 of "Through the Looking Glass";
"I quite agree with you," said the Duchess; "and the moral of that is--'Be what you would seem to be'--or if you'd like it put more simply--'Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have eventually been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'"
Alice married Reginald Hargreaves in 1880. Dodgson did not attend, though he sent a present.
The last paragraph in Alice in Wonderland is supposed to be Alice’s sister narrating, though it sounds very much like Dodgson trying to say something to Alice;
“Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the tale of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life and the happy summer days.”

Dodgson died in 1898 without answering many of the riddles and puzzles he set especially the Liddell Riddle of his relationship with Alice. He continued to revise each edition of the book up until a year before his death. He would write the introduction to each edition, the following is an excerpt from one such;

“Let me add--for I feel I have drifted into far too serious a vein for a preface to a fairy-tale--the deliciously naïve remark of a very dear child-friend, whom I asked, after an acquaintance of two or three days, if she had read `Alice' and the `Looking-Glass'. `Oh yes,' she replied readily, `I've read both of them! And I think' (this more slowly and thoughtfully) `I think "Through the Looking-Glass" is more stupid than "Alice's Adventures". Don't you think so?' But this was a question I felt it would be hardly discreet for me to enter upon.”

LEWIS CARROLL December, 1886


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    • iantoPF profile image

      Peter Freeman 7 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Ixxy;

      He was an interesting character and his "Alice" books are eternal favorites. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • lxxy profile image

      lxxy 7 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

      Wow, I had no idea he was such the renaissance man. Makes the fact his writings withstand the test of time that more pleasurable.

    • iantoPF profile image

      Peter Freeman 7 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Eric; Thank you for stopping by to read. I appreciate the comment.

      Best Wishes...........Ianto

    • Eric Calderwood profile image

      Eric Calderwood 7 years ago from USA

      A very informative and well written hub. Thank you!

    • iantoPF profile image

      Peter Freeman 7 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hi Rachaelle; Thank you for reading and commenting. They are two of my favorite books as well.

    • Rachaelle Lynn profile image

      Rachaelle Lynn 7 years ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Thank you so much for this hub! AIW and TTLG are two of my absolute favorite books. I reread them every few years and never cease to be amazed by Carroll's creativity. This article gave me some background I did not previously know. Thanks for a great hub that made me smile!