In Depression-era America, a prominent feature in many newspapers in April-May 1932 was not about the dire economic situation but local engagements of an 80-year-old British woman, who happened to be a most famous literary figure. However Alice Pleasance Hargreaves was no author herself, but the inspiration for what eventually became “Alice in Wonderland”.
It was as an 10-year-old that Alice, whose 165th birth anniversary is on Thursday, requested a family friend to tell her a story as he and his companion rowed her and her sisters down an Oxford river one summer afternoon in 1862.
The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) obliged with the adventures of a girl called Alice who suddenly sees a waistcoast-wearing white rabbit consulting a pocket-watch, follows him into a hole and tumbles into a strange land full of strange creatures. It so pleased her that she asked him to write it down for her.
Though Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford’s Christ Church college, began the very next day, it was only in November 1864 that he presented her with a hand-written, self-illustrated manuscript, fleshing out the story with the encounters with the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
Alice, the fourth child of classical scholar Henry Liddell and his wife Lorina, was born in London in May 4, 1852. Their family moved to Oxford in 1856 when her father became the Dean of Christ Church. It was the same year she and her siblings – especially older sister Lorina and younger Edith – made the acquaintance of Dodgson. He soon became a frequent visitor to their house, photographed them in various poses and took them out on excursions regularly.
What drew his attention to Alice particularly is a matter of conjecture, but according to Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in “The Story of Alice – Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland”, her appearance and personality might have played a part. “Alice was undeniably pretty, with dark elfin features, chestnut hair that was, unusually for the period, cut in a neat bob, and fashionable clothes chosen by her mother that made her look rather like a well-dressed doll. But as a child she also seems to have a more tomboyish side to her character..”
But Dodgson’s closeness to the Liddells took a sudden break in mid-1863, with a variety of reasons being presented for it from college politics to her mother’s suspicion of their “relationship”. Though relations of some sort were re-established after a Christmas visit and presentation of the “Alice” manuscript in November the next year, the earlier warmth never returned and they gradually drifted apart.
Meanwhile, Dodgson had also published “Alice..”, though he denied it was based on any real-life character and even the picture of Alice that has become famous – of the blond-haired, dress wearing girl – bore no resemblance. But Alice Liddell, who had grown into a proper young woman, studied art under John Ruskin, and toured Europe with her family, always identified with the character.
Having married cricketer Reginald Hargreaves in 1880, she had some correspondence with Dodgson, sent a wreath when he died in 1898, and was member of a committee that sought to raise funds for a sponsored bed in a local children’s hospital in his memory.
However, her later years were not very happy. Her three sons, Alan Rex and Caryl (she denied any connection of the name with Carroll) had gone into the army and the two eldest ones were killed in World War I. This broke their father, who was never the same man he was up to his death in 1926. To cope with the death duties and other expenses, she was forced to sell the manuscript of “Alice..” in 1928. This brought her back into public memory and in 1932, she also participated in various activities held to mark Dodgson’s centenary, including fund-raising for a new ward at a children’s hospital to be named after him.
The America visit, two years before her death, was part of this though after her return, she wrote: “oh, my dear I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland! Doesn’t it sound ungrateful & is — only I do get tired.”
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Vikas Datta