Alice in Wonderland is one of the most famous children’s stories in the world. From the moment it was first published in 1865, new copies have never stopped being printed to this very day. While nearly everyone can recount the events of the fictional tale, few people know the true story behind the book.
It all started with a mathematician at Oxford University named Charles Dodgson. He was photographing a chapel when the Liddell family. Henry Liddell was the Dean of Oxford University at Christ Church, and he lived on campus with his wife and ten children. The day he met Dodgson, Mr. Liddell had his three daughters Edith, Lorina, and Alice with him. Photography was still very new at that time, so the family was very happy to have Dodgson take their family portrait.
Dodgson was great with kids, and he spent a lot of time in the nursery playing games with the Liddell children. He began to entertain the children with a story of a magical place called Wonderland. Alice was just 4 years old at the time, but she was the most bossy, confident, and adventurous of the three girls. Dodgson became enchanted by the little girl, and she became his muse. He eventually wrote down this story about the magical world, and published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. He would have never known that his book would become a world-wide phenomenon, and that scholars would be analyzing his life for years to come, revealing what dark secrets may have been hiding inside of his tortured mind.
Charles Dodgson’s father was a Reverend, and he was the oldest child in his family. He had several younger sisters, and he entertained them with games and stories. He also drew homemade magazines with some of his stories to give to his younger siblings, in place of story books. Maybe he was home sick as a young man living in Oxford, or must have truly preferred the company of children over adults, because he continued to seek out friendships with kids, including the Liddell children.
On April 25, 1856, Dodgson and a colleague from Oxford, Father Robinson Duckworth were taking Alice, Lorina, and Edith Liddell in a rowboat down the river Thames. Alice always asked Dodgson to tell them a story, even though he was a painfully shy mathematician. So he would make things up as he went along, glancing at his surroundings along the river. He included the girls into these make-believe adventures, and was sure to add in some jokes that grown-up academics would enjoy, since Duckworth was there with them. He set the story in the same place where they enjoyed walking along the river and stopping for a picnic. The children were so entertained by the tale of Wonderland, that Alice begged him to write it down and turn it into a book. Alice was known for being the most bossy and adventurous of the three girls, and she was clearly Dodgson’s favorite.
Over the course of a year, Dodgson wrote out the stories and practiced illustrations by sketching real rabbits, and trying to copy the faces from his photographs of Alice in painstaking detail. All of the faces of his characters looked rather sad, and some believe that the fastidious white rabbit was modeled after himself. After making a perfect manuscript, he presented it to Alice Liddell as a Christmas present in a homemade book called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”. The front page said, “In memory of a summer’s day”.
Through some of his connections at Oxford, he wrote additional chapters to the story and published the book through MacMillan. It became a bestseller almost immediately, but Charles Dodgson wanted to continue his quiet life as an Oxford math professor, and keep the existence of “Lewis Carroll” separate from his day-to-day life. He would later go on to publish the sequel called Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.
Charles Dodgson Had a Lot of Issues
While the name “Lewis Carroll” was a famous author that was beloved around the world, that name became a persona that was far from the real man. Throughout his life, Charles Dodgson He had Dyslexia, which made it difficult for him to read, which is probably why he preferred to work with numbers as a mathematician. He clearly pushed himself very hard to work through the disability, and he was was still able to excel in an academic field. He also had a speech impediment that caused him to stutter, which is why he never became a full-fledged priest. He would have never been able to speak in front of a crowd of adults. But somehow, he had no problem speaking clearly with children.
Some people believed he also had OCD, because in her autobiography, Alice Liddell said that Dodgson was always standing up perfectly straight, his clothing was never out of place, and he was very particular about the neatness of everything. He also suffered from migraines, which can be so painful, it becomes nearly impossible to function normally.
After writing the books, Charles Dodgson was careful to separate his personal life from that of “Lewis Carroll”. Whenever letters came in the mail from fans to Oxford, he never replied, and asked them all to go “return to sender”. He did not seem to have very many adult friends, and apparently had trouble adjusting to adulthood.
The Question of Sexuality
Charles Dodgson spent a suspicious amount of time hanging out with little girls, instead of making grown-up friends. Witnesses said that he would “collect” child friends that he met nearly everywhere he went, and ask their parents if he could take photos of them. He also wrote letters to Alice saying that he wished he could kiss her when he was away. He even requested to have a lock of her hair, which seems like a very romantic gesture.
As part of the Oxford Christ Church faculty, he was part of a group of clerical academics who took on a life of celibacy. While he became a Reverend, he was not a priest, and he could technically get married some day, if he chose to. But their academic order taught that sex got in the way of thinking clearly. He was taught to repress any sexual feelings that he may have had, because they were all considered to be sinful.
In some of his letters to friends, he said that he was fond of children, “but not boys”. So we know that he was a heterosexual, but some suggest that he may have also been a pedophile. However, people who defend him claim that these statements are mostly taken out of the context of conversations about preferences to photographic subjects, not sexual attraction. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and there is no conclusive evidence that proves that he ever abused any kids.
One of the most controversial photographs of Alice Liddell is her as a very young girl of just 6 years old, posed in a costume of a beggar maid. Her dress is ripped and falling off of her shoulders, exposing her chest. She has one hand on her hip, and her gaze is piercing as she looked towards the camera. Her eyes seem to be much older than that of a young girl. Modern-day scholars find this photograph to be disturbing, and believe it suggests that Carroll was trying to sexualize her. However, historians argue that in the Victorian era, this was totally normal hobby for middle-class children to get dressed up in costumes and pose for the camera. Alice did, in fact, dress up in other costumes as well that were much more age-appropriate.
Many scholars agree that they believe he had romantic feelings for Alice, but he tried very hard to suppress them. When reading his journals, it is clear that the days when he saw Alice were much more emotional for him. He would often lose sleep. During an interview, Alice Liddell’s great granddaughter, Vanessa Tait, said “I think he was in love with her, but I don’t think he would have admitted that to himself.” Considering that Dodgson was always in the company of her nanny or parents when he saw Alice, it is unlikely that anything inappropriate actually happened.
In one of the books he wrote about math, Dodgson confessed that he would run numbers through his head during times when he struggled with impure thoughts. Since he was totally celibate, this could have just as easily been referencing sex with grown women, but it was clear from his journals, letters, and publications that he pushed all of his feelings down deep in order to get by.
When rumors about his dark motivations behind the friendships with little girls was made public, dozens of letters came in from the women who had grown up around him. They all claim that he would kiss them on the cheek or the top of their head, and maybe sit on his lap from time to time, but the relationships would never go any further. This kind of relationship was not as strange in the Victorian Era as it would seem today.
The Real Alice Was Tired Of The Fame
Years before child stars were acting in TV and movies, Alice Liddell became a celebrity for being the real Alice in Wonderland. Her photographs were seen everywhere, so people knew what she looked like, and where she lived. She couldn’t go anywhere in public without people commenting on the story and asking her questions about Alice in Wonderland.
As she grew older, she grew tired of being associated with the character. When she was 11, her family stopped being friends with Charles Dodgson, but he still managed to take her photograph when she turned 18 years old. In the photograph, it is easy to see that she looks very unhappy and uncomfortable. This could have also been due to the fact that this was soon after the death of her sister Edith. Life was no longer the magical place it had once been as a little girl. For the majority of her adult life, she tried to move on and live her own life raising a family in the English countryside.
When she was much older, in her 80’s, Alice seemed to embrace the association with the character a lot more. She went on a trip to New York City, and she was filmed saying that the trip was nearly as exciting as her adventures under ground. When she passed away, her gravestone mentions “Alice in Wonderland”, which means that she must have gone to peace with the connection.
The Psychedelic Drug Debate
Since Alice in Wonderland is such a strange story filled with surreal and even frightening images of colorful imagination, there are plenty of people who assume that Lewis Carroll must have been high out of his mind when he wrote the books. At the very least, they believe that there are hints about psychedelics are scattered throughout the pages.
According to people who interpret that the story is full of mind-altering drugs, the caterpillar would have been smoking opium, since it was actually legal at the time. Pieces of mushroom would have been a reference to solasiban mushrooms, and bottles of mysterious liquids that Alice drinks could be the drug laudanum poison. However, a professor named Dr. Heather Worthington from Cardiff University believes that the perception that there are hidden messages about drugs comes from the 1960’s hippie culture, and that people are forcing their modern-day sensibilities on the past.
There are several parts of the story that have cheeky political commentary, or jokes meant for adults to understand. For example, the Cheshire cat engages Alice in a semi-intellectual conversation about philosophy, which was meant to be an inside joke for his friends at Oxford. It is very possible that he also included some hidden messages about drugs in there, as well, but there is no evidence that proves that this was his intention.
Fiction, or Frightening Syndrome?
Today, medical discoveries have revealed details of a neuro-psychological condition called Todd’s syndrome. This is caused by severe migraines. People who suffer from this have a perception that objects are growing larger or smaller. They know that it is not real, but it is a visual hallucination. For some people who suffer from these hallucinations, it may happen in their childhood and eventually go away as their brain fully develops. This is exactly what happens in Lewis Carroll’s stories. Alice drinks a mysterious bottle of liquid, and she grows larger and smaller as the objects around her change. This is why Todd’s Syndrome is better known by the nickname “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome”.
Is this a coincidence, or was Lewis Carroll writing about his own personal experiences? There is already evidence that Lewis Carroll suffered from severe migraines, and the Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is actually a migraine aura phenomenon. Some modern-day theorists wonder if the scenes in the story are a way for the author to explain his real experiences in a context where it would not seem so crazy. If he wrote about it in the story through the character Alice, he was finally able to express to the world what his childhood felt like.
It is known that Lewis Carroll drank laudanum, which is suspected to be the contents small bottle that Alice drinks in the story. Laudanum was part opium, morphine, and codeine. It was used to treat pain in the Victorian era, but it was highly addictive. This could have also contributed to his list of medical and personal issues.
A Wasp in a Wig
When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was to be published by MacMillan, Lewis Carroll had to work alongside one of the best children’s illustrators at the time, John Tenniel. There were several new chapters that were added to the book that never existed in the version he gifted to Alice, including the mad tea party, which ended up becoming one of the most iconic scenes in the story. Without Tenniel’s help, the story may not have captured the imaginations of so many quite as well, if they had kept Carroll’s original drawings.
Since all of these creatures existed in Lewis Carroll’s mind, he had to try to explain some pretty strange concepts to Tenniel, like playing cards that could walk and talk, and creatures that simply did not exist in reality, like the Jabberwocky in Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Whenever an illustration did not match what Carroll envisioned, he would send it back and ask for Tenniel to do it all over again. One can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for Tenniel, who was used to receiving a lot of praise for his work.
There was one chapter in the story that gave John Tenniel so much grief, he apparently told Lewis Carroll to get rid of it. This was a scene where Alice meets a wasp who used to have luscious, blonde curly hair. He went bald, so he was forced to wear a ridiculous-looking wig, and he complains about losing his youth. Tenniel apparently told Carroll, “a wasp in a wig is altogether beyond the appliances of art.”
Even though he said this, there is a sketch of the wasp in the wig that was attributed to Tenniel, and the creature is massive. There is no telling what sort of critique of conversation they had about this rough sketch, but in the end, it was best for them to scrap that chapter all together.
Loneliness and Broken Hearts
One day in 1863, seemingly out of nowhere, the friendship between the Liddell family and Charles Dodgson fell apart. He kept meticulous records of his daily life in a journal. Something happened to tear their friendship apart. For five months, he did not mention the Liddells at all, until December of that year, where he spotted them at a Christmas party. He wrote that he had to hide to avoid running into them. They eventually met up for tea, but it was excruciatingly awkward, and it was clear the friendship could not be repaired.
When he died, his nieces inherited his journals. They decided to cut out the pages of what happened that day, hiding the evidence of something that everyone assumes would have damaged their family’s reputation. To this day, the exact details about the reason for the end in their friendship remains a mystery. It was as if the truth behind the matter was so traumatizing, his nieces would rather it never be associated with their uncle’s memory.
In a letter that Carroll’s niece was writing to a friend, she says that the cut pages from the journal explain that Mrs. Liddell was plotting to set him up with the children’s governess, Mary Prickett. Apparently, the assumption that he was trying to court Mary Prickett was the only reason why a grown man was allowed to spend so much time with the children in the nursery. In middle-class families, it was part of the mother’s duty to make sure her children’s nanny found a suitable husband. However, Lewis Carroll would have never married Mary Prickett. He actually based the character of the evil Red Queen on her, because she was always snapping at the children when they misbehaved.
Mrs. Liddell also apparently allowed him to court Alice’s older sister, Lorina. She would have been 14 at the time. The age of consent was only 12 years old back then, so for a mother who was eager to marry off her daughters, this was actually seen as normal, whereas today it would be considered child abuse. Some people believe that he may have responded to Mrs. Liddell that if he married any of the girls at all, he would prefer to wait a year so he could marry Alice, who was 11 years old at the time. This, of course, is just conjecture, but in his journals, it is evident that he had feelings for her.
According to Alice’s great great granddaughter Vanessa Tait, Alice’s mother was very posh and snobby. She wanted her daughters to marry into royalty, and the likes of Charles Dodgson would never have been good enough for Alice. As the most beautiful and intelligent daughter of the three, she would have been most likely to marry royalty. Tait believes that even if he had never actually proposed to marry Alice, Mrs. Liddell would have wanted to cut off their friendship as the girls got older, because she would have wanted to prevent any chance at romance forming between them.
After the mysterious fight, Mrs. Liddell burned all of the letters that Alice had received from Dodgson. When she was in her 80’s, Lorina was interviewed by a biographer, and they asked her to explain what happened to break up the friendship between the family. She did not go into too many details, saying that Lewis Carroll had become too affectionate towards Alice, and it caused a fight with Mrs. Liddell, which is why they parted ways.
Even though he was a Reverend, Charles Dodgson could have gotten married and had children, just like his own father did. However, he never found another woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. In one of his diary entries, he wrote, “I prayed to God to give me a new heart.” He died a bachelor.
The Disgraceful Photographs
Aside from studying math, the Bible, and telling stories to children, Lewis Carroll had a passion for photography. Despite the fact that he loved taking photos of other people, he did not want very many photos taken of himself. He was afraid that if too many pictures of him circulated, people would recognize him in public. He preferred to have his privacy.
His favorite photographic subject were children, and he “collected” child friends that he photographed on a regular basis. This became one of the biggest controversies, because he took several photographs of young girls when they were completely naked. Today, this would be illegal, and it would have quickly landed him in jail. However, back then, it was considered to be artistic expression celebrating childhood innocence, and the parents gave their consent to let their child participate in the photo shoot, and were probably standing nearby while it happened.
He was not the only Victorian era photographer to do this, either. His contemporaries, like Julia Margaret Cameron, also photographed naked children. One of her most famous photographs is of a naked little girl with angel wings. Even in modern times, photographers like Anne Geddes have taken similar pictures of nude babies, and they are still considered to be appropriate for infants, so long as their private areas are concealed. For those who refuse to believe that Lewis Carroll could have possibly been a bad person, they cling on to these comparisons, and hope that it was just a very different time than it is today.
In a Timeline documentary called The Secret World of Lewis Carroll, researchers found a photograph in a French museum of a young teenage girl of around 14 years old. It was attributed to Lewis Carroll as being Alice’s older sister, Lorina Liddell. This was around the time that they were rumored to have been courting one another. The girl does not look very happy to have her picture taken, and there is nothing about it that could possibly be explained away by attempting to capture “childhood innocence”.
While modern-day researchers would see this as proof of his pedophilia, this girl has already gone through puberty, and physically developed into a woman in every day. She was two years older than the age of consent at the time, which would have made this a photo of an adult in the eyes of the law. However, Mr. and Mrs. Liddell would have never allowed their daughters to pose for these kinds of racy photographs at any age, for fear that it would ruin their reputations as young ladies who were trying to find a husband. This means that if this really is a photo of Lorina Liddell, Lewis Carroll would have done this without their knowledge.
This caused a great deal of controversy for modern-day historians, because there are experts who say that this photo is a fake, and it is meant to ruin his reputation. However, the makers of the documentary hired two different experts to run several tests on the photograph, and it is most likely genuine. If Mrs. Liddell found out about the photograph, this could have been the real reason why the friendship with the family ended, and it is understandable why everyone in both families were too ashamed to talk about it.
Today, this photograph of Lorina is disgusting, and would have been enough evidence to put the man in jail for a very long time. However, as was mentioned before, it was perfectly legal at the time. From his perspective, he may not have thought he was doing anything wrong by capturing a photograph of someone he thought was beautiful.
Nearly a Princess
Mrs. Liddell had aspirations for Alice to marry into the upper class, and she earned the nickname “Kingfisher”, because she was always pushing her daughters to court the best of the best and meet new men to charm at parties. She should have been proud, because Alice very nearly married Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold. He was studying as an undergraduate at Oxford Christ Church, where Alice’s father worked. Unfortunately, members of the royal family were not allowed to marry anyone from the middle class.
Alice ended up marrying another student from Oxford- a professional cricket player named Reginald Hargreaves. They had three sons. She named them Leopold after the prince, Alan, and another one Caryl, which could be interpreted as a variation of “Carroll”. It was as if she was paying homage to the men she cared about in her past. Leopold married a German princess, and he named his first daughter Alice. Even though they did not end up together, this was a beautiful way to honor their first love.
As a married woman, Alice and her husband moved to a house in the countryside. She had servants to help run the house, and she learned to draw and paint in her spare time. She had a comfortable life, but one wonders if she ever dreamed of what it would have been like living in a castle with prince Leopold, instead.
Tragically, Alice’s two eldest sons, Leopold and Alan, were killed during World War I. Her husband died soon afterwards. She was forced to sell her valuables in order to maintain the expenses of their house. In 1948, she sold the original manuscript she was gifted from Lewis Carroll at auction for Â£15,400 to a private collector. With modern-day inflation, that is more like $215,670. The British Museum eventually gain possession of the manuscript, which is where it is today.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
Local Lives Alice Liddell. Jane Curran. BBC.
The Wasp in a Wig: A “Suppressed” Episode of Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. University of Maryland Library.
The Secret World Of Lewis Carroll. Timeline Documentary.
Curiouser and Curiouser. Siri Hustvedt. The New York Times. February 24, 2008.
Just Good Friends? The Guardian. 2001.