Alice Liddell: The Little Girl Who Helped Launch a Literary Icon

Alice Liddell
Alice Liddell aged 7 – Photographed by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1860 – Wikimedia Commons

When searching the centuries for suitable examples, Alice Liddell is perhaps not the most likely of literary muses. Few children are. But it was her natural charm and, most significantly, her wondrous sense of curiosity that endeared her to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. In fact, little Alice proved to be such an inspiration to the budding English writer and mathematician, that had the two not been introduced during the mid-1800s, the world of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” might never have come to be.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” remains an undisputed classic within the literary canon. A fantastical world of magic and make-believe, populated with grinning cats, evil queens, and rodents decked out in bespoke tailored suits. Were it not such a timeless tale of allegorical fantasy and quixotic nonsense, one might consider it to be the product of a madman. And in a sense, it was.

Lewis Carroll’s writing—particularly his descriptions of the fabulous, subterranean world of Wonderland—is immersive and deep, if not a touch ludicrous. However, it is his heroine, Alice, who truly draws the crowd. So, where did Carroll come up with the idea for his crafty title character?

Young Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean at the University of Oxford, lived in Christ Church College. Carroll, who was then a math tutor, worked within reach of the Liddell’s residence and would become a friend of the family—and one who would regale Alice and her two sisters, Lorina and Edith, with whimsical stories.

Liddell sisters
Alice Liddell (right) with sisters (Edith, Lorina) – Photographed by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) 1859 – Wikimedia Commons

Carroll, so struck by the then 10-year old Alice and her precocious and stubborn sense of wonderment, came up with the 
Alice stories during a boating trip with the Liddell girls in 1862. Encouraged to expand on the tales by Alice herself, Carroll eventually gifted her with the first manuscript in 1864, entitled “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.” The following year, the story was published under its more familiar name.

Inexplicably, Alice Liddell, who as a child, sported a comely brunette bob, looked less like the Alice in John Tenniel’s famous illustrations—and even less like the flaxen-haired blond in the 1951 Disney film. However, her quizzical spirit remains imbued in this timely character.

Alice and the Dodo John Tenniel
Alice and the Dodo illustrated by John Tenniel in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” first published edition, 1866, p. 35. National Art Library: 38041802039719

Despite Carroll’s fame, the real Alice avoided public attention, focusing instead on sketching and travel writing. As Liddell matured, she occasionally found herself mingling within bohemian circles, even being photographed as a teenager for the artist 
Julia Margaret Cameronportraits of which still hang in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Pomona Alice Liddell Julia Margaret Cameron
Pomona – Photograph of Alice Liddell, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872, England – Museum no. RPS.1271-2017 – Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alice married in 1880, had three sons, and spent most of her life in Hampshire before falling on hard financial times—losing a husband, plus two children to the war—which forced her to sell Carroll’s manuscript in 1928. This sale, plus a visit to the US in 1932 for the Lewis Carroll centenary celebrations, prompted a renewed interest in the famed Liddell girl. She received an Honorary Doctorate from Columbia for services to literature and experienced newfound fame before her death in 1934.

In the end, Alice Liddell and her enduring spirit did for a generation of readers what the Cheshire Cat’s smile did for “Alice:” she left an indelible impression.