Down the Rabbit Hole: The Real Alice in Wonderland

The young Oxford don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) first met Alice Liddell, his "fairy-form," in the spring of 1856. The Dean of Christ Church College at the time was a man named Henry George Liddell, a stern and rather daunting scholar who had come to Oxford with his family only a few months previously. During that time many eminent Victorians passed through the Deanery, but for the Dean's three oldest daughters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith, their secure and happy childhood was enriched less by contact with the great, than by their friendship with Dodgson, a shy mathematics tutor with a passion for logic, photography, and nonsense. Alice and her sisters were always eager to listen to the young man's apparently endless stock of absurd stories, poems, and songs, and one summer day in 1862 they all took a boating trip down the river. It was on that idyllic afternoon that Dodgson told a story so wonderful that Alice implored him to write it down, and he later presented her with the illustrated manuscript of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, signed with the nom de plume Lewis Carroll.

It has been suggested that the camera served Carroll as an introduction to two kinds of people whose acquaintance he valued, "celebrities and children." He clearly relished photographic sessions with his child-friends, and over time built up a wardrobe of costumes for them to wear. His own favorite model, however, was not a little girl dressed up in finery, but a "natural" child, with ruffled hair and beggar's rags. In a 1932 memoir, Alice Liddell wrote

We used to go to his rooms ... escorted by our nurse. When we got there, we used to sit on the big sofa on each side of him, while he told us stories, illustrating them by pencil or ink drawings as he went along. When we were thoroughly happy and amused at his stories, he used to pose us, and expose the plates before the right mood had passed.
Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson thought this picture of a rather sultry Alice disguised as a street urchin "” hand-tinted by Carroll himself "” the most beautiful photograph he had ever seen.

Lewis Carroll. Portrait of Alice Liddell dressed as a street urchin. Hand-colored photograph, ca. 1862.
The New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, Owen D. Young Collection.

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