Alice Pleasance Liddell (4 May 1852 – 16 November 1934), known for most of her adult life by her married name, Alice Hargreaves, inspired the children’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson).
The relationship between Liddell and Carroll has been the source of much controversy. Many biographers have supposed that Carroll was romantically or sexually attached to her as a child, though there has never been any direct proof for this and more benign accounts assume merely a platonic fondness. Karoline Leach has claimed this supposition is part of what she terms the “Carroll Myth” and thus wildly distorted. The evidence for any given interpretation is small, and many authors writing on the topic have tended to indulge in a great deal of speculation.
Carroll met the Liddell family in 1855. He first befriended Harry, the older brother, and later took both Harry and Ina on several boating trips and picnics to the scenic areas around Oxford. Later, when Harry went to school, Alice and her younger sister Edith joined the party. Dodgson entertained the children by telling them fantastic stories to while away the time. He also used them as subjects for his hobby, photography. It has often been stated that Alice was clearly his favorite subject in these years, but there is very little evidence to suggest that this is so. Carroll’s diaries from 18 April 1858 to 8 May 1862 are missing and may have been destroyed by his heirs.
The relationship between the Liddells and Carroll suffered a sudden break in June 1863. There was no record of why the rift occurred, since the Liddells never openly spoke of it, and the single page in Carroll’s diary recording 27-29 June 1863 (which seems to cover the period in which it began) was missing. Until recently, the only source for what happened on that day had been speculation, and generally centered on the idea that Alice Liddell was, somehow, the cause of the break. It was long suspected that her mother disapproved of Carroll’s interest in her, seeing him as an unfit companion for an 11-year-old girl.
The extent to which Carroll’s Alice may be identified with Liddell is controversial. The two Alices are clearly not identical, and though it was long assumed that the fictional Alice was based very heavily on Liddell, recent research has contradicted this assumption. Carroll himself claimed in later years that his Alice was entirely imaginary and not based upon any real child at all.
There was a rumour that Carroll sent Tenniel a photo of one of his other child-friends, Mary Hilton Badcock, suggesting that he use her as a model, but attempts to find documentary support for this theory have proved fruitless. Carroll’s own drawings of the character in the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures under Ground show little resemblance to Liddell. Biographer Anne Clark suggests that Carroll might have used Edith Liddell as a model for his drawings.
There are at least three direct links to Liddell in the two books. First, he set them on 4 May (Liddell’s birthday) and 4 November (her “half-birthday”), and in Through the Looking-Glass the fictional Alice declares that her age is “seven and a half exactly”, the same as Liddell on that date. Second, he dedicated them “to Alice Pleasance Liddell”. Third, there is an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass. Reading downward, taking the first letter of each line, spells out Liddell’s full name. The poem has no title in Through the Looking-Glass, but is usually referred to by its first line, “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky”.
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?