The Real Alice in Wonderland

We are so used to seeing the stylised Alice costume that most people probably think that was the picture that Lewis Carroll had in mind when he wrote his famous books. The blue dress and white apron are iconic, although the modern dress is probably somewhat shorter to that of Victorian times. But few appreciate how diferent our modern take is on the original story, and perhaps many do not know that Alice actually existed and was a real child known to Carroll, and not only that, but it was her insistence that eventually persuaded him to commit the story to print.

Alice: courtesy of
PrincessAlice on Flickr

The real Alice was possibly Alice Liddell, and when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865 she was thirteen years old. Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell who was the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Dean of Christ Church and headmaster of Westminster School. Lewis Carroll, or to give hm his real name, Charles Dodgson, knew him from Christ Church, the College at which he taught, and he became a friend of the family.

On an afternoon in July 1862, Dodgson with another clergy friend, went in a boat on the Thames with Alice and her older sister Lorina and her younger sister Edith. As they rowed a five mile stretch, Charles made up a story to pass the time. It told of a bored little girl who went off in search of adventure. Alice in Wonderland was born. The story was later expanded and embellished before Dodgson, assuming the pen name of Lewis Carroll, committed it to print.

There is some disagreement amongst scholars as to whether Alice in Wonderland was in fact meant to be Alice Liddell. Carroll himself, in later life, said that the story was not based upon a real person. Carroll’s own drawings that acompanied the manuscript did not seem to resemble Alice Liddell, although it has been suggested that they were drawings of the younger sister, Edith. The book, when it went to print was illustrated by John Tenniel, and it is not known who he used as a basis for the drawing, nor whether he was influenced by Carroll.

There are some interesting links to Alice Liddell in the book, however.

Firstly they were set on her birthday (4 May) and half birthday (4 November). In Through the Looking Glass, Alice declares that she is seven and a half years exactly, the same as Liddell on that date. The book is also dedicated to Alice Pleasance Liddell, but by far the most intriguing connection is a poem that appears in Looking Glass which goes like this:

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July–

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear–

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream–
Lingering in the golden gleam–
Life, what is it but a dream?

If you take the first letter on each line all the way through the poem, the name Alice Pleasance Liddell is spelt out.

So what did the real Alice Liddell look like, the girl many people like to think was the real Alice? Fortunately we have a photograph, thanks to Dodgson’s other hobby, photography. In the picture Alice is on the right, with Lorina in the middle and Edith on the right. In the second picture Alice is dressed like a beggar, but it is the first photograph that intrigues me.

Alice Liddell with Sisters

Alice Liddell

Here we have no suggestion of the blue frock and white pinafore of the modern image, nor the long blonde locks, which seem popular from the Disney version. This Alice had short, dark hair, and was dressed much as any other Victorian girls from well to families would have dressed. I don’t suppose it really matters that our modern take on it is not all that accurate, it is more important that the story lives on.

Alice drawing by John Tenniel

There are some people who suggest that the relationship which Dodgson had with Alice was inappropriate, and that his love of photographing young girls was unhealthy. I think those critics miss the point by not understanding the times and the culture. The Victorians may have been our ancestors, but they were also different people to us. They thought differently, acted differently and lived their lives differently. Some of the things they did, we find odd today, but they were just different. For example, they regularly took photographs of dead people, which they propped up with the aid of stands, and these were termed mourning photographs. We would find that kind of photograph distasteful, and perhaps offensive, but the Victorians looked at it differently, maybe because they lived daily with the spectre of death. Similarly, nobody would have even considered that photographing a child was wrong. It was a much more innocent time. Certainly Dodgson liked children, and probably mainly liked girls, but it was almost certainly an entirely innocent pleasure, that sadly has been lost by our modern witchhunting obsession. Even those who have attempted to make something out of nothing have been unable to find any real evidence of inappropriate behaviour and have based their accusations on suggestion and inuendo.

Alice Liddell went on to marry, and lived to the ripe old age of 82, dying in 1934. Lewis Carroll drifted apart from her around the time of the publication of Adventures, probably accelerated accelerated by a political rift between Carroll and her Father, caused by College politics. She went on to have three sons, two of whom died in the first World War.

So it is not clear whether there ever was a real Alice in Wonderland, nor what she really looked like, but in the end, it must come down to how we see her in our mind as we read the book.

Published in: on May 25, 2010 at 7:10 pm  Comments (2)  
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Sweet Fanny Adams

A sad Victorian crime is still remembered today when we use the phrase “sweet Fanny Adams” to mean nothing at all, or no result.

Fanny Adams was an eight year old schoolgirl living in Alton Hampshire when the crime took place on 24 August 1867. She went out with her seven year old sister Lizzie, and a school friend, Millie Warner to play in a nearby meadow. On the way they met a young man, Frederick Baker, who offered Lizzie and Millie three-halfpence (1p in modern money) to go and spend in the shops, while Fanny was told she could have a halfpenny if she showed the man the way to a nearby village. She took the money, but refused to go with the man on the two mile journey. He carried the girl into a nearby hop field, and that was the last time she was seen alive.

Later, when the two other girls arrived home, the alarm was raised, and her mother and a neighbour set out to find Fanny. They met Mr Baker in a lane and they asked him if he knew anything. He claimed that he had just given the girls money for sweets, which they accepted, and continued on their way. It should be noted that Mr Baker was a Solicitor’s Clerk so he would be dressed and act in a manner that made him “respectable” and in Victorian times his word would be accepted as truthful.

After two hours of searching, with no result, other neighbours joined in, and they soon discovered poor Fanny’s body in a field. She had been horribly butchered, her head and legs severed, and her eyes gouged out. Her body had also been viscerated, with the otgans scattered around the fields nearby. It took several days to find all the parts, and eventually they were carried back to a nearby doctor’s surgery, of which more later.

The Police set about questioning the suspect Frederick Baker. It was soon found that he had blood on his clothing and two blood stained knives. He was unable to account for these and claimed he was innocent. Questioning witnesses gave circumstantial evidence putting him in the area, but that was nothing that was not already known. More telling was the testimony of a fellow clerk who had been drinking with Baker after work. He claimed that Baker had said that he might have to leave town to which his colleague had replied that if he did he might find it hard getting another job. Baker made a strange reply, “I might go as a butcher.” The final piece of evidence was found two days after the murder, when Baker’s diary was found and in it he had made an entry: 24th August, Saturday — killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.

Baker was tried for murder and although various defences were suggested such as insanity, it took a jury only 15 minutes to return a verdict of guilty. He was hanged on Christmas Eve outside of Winchester Gaol. The remains of Fanny Adams was buried in Alton churchyard.

Two years later, in 1869 rations of tinned mutton were introduced for British sailors. The tinned meat was not popular, and seamen claimed that it was the remains of Fanny Adams. This was perhaps based on the fact that the Royal Navy stores was not far from Alton, and it could be thought that the widely scattered remains of the little girl had found their way into the meat prepared for the sailors. Thus the unpopular mutton was sweet Fanny Adams, which later became sweet FA, and now has rude connotations.

A final twist to the story is that the doctor’s surgery, to which the remains of the girl was taken, later was converted into a pub, Ye Olde Leathern Bottle, and it is claimed that it is haunted by the ghost of Fanny Adams.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 8:02 pm  Comments (1)  
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