Meet the Real Alice: How the Story of Alice in Wonderland Was Born
“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations!”
By Maria Popova
On July 4, 1862, a young mathematician by the name of Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll, boarded a boat with a small group, setting out from Oxford to the nearby town of Godstow, where the group was to have tea on the river bank. The party consisted of Carroll, his friend Reverend Robinson Duckworth, and the three little sisters of Carroll’s good friend Harry Liddell — Edith (age 8), Alice (age 10), and Lorina (age 13). Entrusted with entertaining the young ladies, Dodgson fancied a story about a whimsical world full of fantastical characters, and named his protagonist Alice. So taken was Alice Liddell with the story that she asked Dodgson to write it down for her, which he did when he soon sent her a manuscript under the title of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
A long procession of charming little girls (we know today that they were charming from their photographs) skipped through Carroll’s life, but none ever took the place of his first love, Alice Liddell. ‘I have had some scores of child-friends since your time,’ he wrote to her after her marriage, ‘but they have been quite a different thing.’
The manuscript also made its way to George MacDonald, and idol of Dodgson’s, who had the perfect litmus test for the story’s merit: He read it to his own children, who single-mindedly loved it. Encouraged, Dodgson revised the story for publication, retitling it to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and adding the now-famous scene of the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the character of the Cheshire Cat for a grand total nearly twice as long as the manuscript he’d originally sent to Alice Liddell.
Tenniel’s pictures of Alice are not pictures of Alice Liddell, who had dark hair cut short with straight bangs across her forehead. Carroll sent Tenniel a photograph of Mary Hilton Badcock, another child-friend, recommending that he use her for a model, but whether Tenniel accepted that advice is a matter of dispute. That he did not is strongly suggested by these lines from a letter Carroll wrote sometime after both Alice books had been published…
‘Mr. Tenniel is the only artist, who has drawn for me, who has resolutely refused to use a model, and declared he no more need one than I should need a multiplication table to work a mathematical problem! I venture to think that he was mistaken and that for want of a model, he drew several pictures of ‘Alice’ entirely out of proportion — head decidedly too large and feet decidedly too small.’
For more Alice gold, see Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, Salvador Dalí’s 1969 illustrations for the Carroll classic, a pop-up adaptation of it, and some gorgeous illustrated interpretations by Yayoi Kusama, Leonard Weisgard, and Lisbeth Zwerger.
Published July 4, 2012