‘I could tell you my adventures – beginning from this morning, but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’
All in a golden afternoon, a little boat rocks gently on the surface of the Thames at Folly Bridge, Oxford. Overhead, traffic trundles south over the stones, as it has done since the early nineteenth century. But in the shadows beneath, all is quiet, until a whisper – a child’s voice – seems to ripple across the silence.
When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll) took the three young daughters of the Dean of Christ Church college – Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell – for a boat trip down the Thames in 1862, it was not just the pretty riverbanks and countryside of Oxfordshire that they were exploring. The whole of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass country of Alice’s now famous adventures unfolded before them as they progressed slowly towards the village of Godstow.
Carroll wove his stories around the familiar sights of the city, and most especially of Christ Church, where the Liddell children grew up, and where he spent most of his adult life – around the neat croquet lawns and gardens, the ancient dusty corridors, and chessboard fields that formed the girls’ playground, and indeed that of Carroll himself. All these appear, but through a child’s eye view, in which concepts of time and size are as fluid as the river itself.
‘What a number of people there are in the carriage!’
As the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed them past the recently-built Oxford train station, and small hands trailed in the cool water, the girls might easily imagine Alice sitting primly aboard her Looking-Glass train, surrounded by strange and dream-like characters.
‘Well! After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs!’
Was it the staircase at the back of Christ Church’s wood-panelled Great Hall (now known to twenty-first century children as the setting for newer magic by a famous boy wizard) that inspired the rabbit-hole-entry-point for Alice’s adventures? Or was it passing the heavy oak door that the famously tardy Dean used to get to the Senior Common Room that Carroll first glimpsed a disappearing white tail?
‘Things flow about so here!’
The grocery shop where Alice and her sisters bought their sweets, just across the road from the college, and these days packed with tat for souvenir-seekers, was transformed at the mathematician-storyteller’s hands into The Old Sheep Shop of Through the Looking-Glass; the bleating shopkeeper into the old sheep herself. Even the shop’s frequent flooding due to its proximity to underground streams was written into the story, as Alice and the sheep suddenly find themselves bobbing along in a rowing boat.
While Carroll’s boat drifted by the men working noisily at Bossoms’ Boatyard that lazy July afternoon of 1862, other local Oxford characters also made an appearance. All of the original members of the Godstow party may be spied in Wonderland, dashing aimlessly round in the Caucus race, with Lorina Liddell as the Lory, Edith as the Eaglet and the Reverend Duckworth as the Duck. Dodgson himself can perhaps be detected in the Dodo.
John Tenniel’s original illustrations of the Mad Hatter bore a strong resemblance to the eccentric Oxford furniture dealer and inventor, Theophilius Carter. The girls would have recognised Carter, who often stood in the door of his shop on High Street with a top hat perched on the back of his head, and who had invented an Alarm Clock Bed that was displayed in London at the The Great Exhibition of 1851.
As the boat pulled in at Godstow, in view of the ruins of the abbey, the tour of Wonderland drew to a close with the afternoon. Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland three years later in 1865, with Through the Looking-Glass following it in 1871, and was quickly propelled from relative academic obscurity to international literary renown. Even Queen Victoria was an admirer. By this point, his relationship with the Liddells no longer seems to have been as close, for reasons that remain unclear. But when, as young women, the three sisters embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe, perhaps they might have been following the trail of an adventurous little girl who had been their childhood guide to the Wonderland of their home.
‘Ever drifting down the stream-
Lingering in the golden gleam-
Life, what is it but a dream?’