One of my favorite free newsletters, Atlas Obscura, recently offered a fascinating glimpse into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – or Alice in Wonderland, as most of us call it. As you probably know, Lewis Carroll wrote it to entertain some little girls on an afternoon boat trip on the Thames.
The original story, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, might be best understood as having a target audience of three: Alice’s namesake, Alice Liddell, and her sisters, Lorina and Edith. It was committed to writing at Alice’s request, and it’s filled it with the Victorian equivalent of Easter eggs meant to make her and her sisters smile.
On a July day in 1862, ten-year-old Alice and her sisters were rowing with their grown-up friend Charles Dodgson, a mathematician who had recently started publishing his writing under the pen name Lewis Carroll. Carroll and one of his friends were bringing the Liddells to the town of Godstow for a picnic, and while he rowed he told them a story. Carroll was particularly fond of Alice, and he named the heroine of the story after her.
In many ways, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was a very different book from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For one thing, the finished book had Tenniel’s iconic illustrations, whereas the original manuscript was decorated with Carroll’s sketches of a darker-haired Alice.
The story contains a number of references that may seem purely weird to modern readers, but would have been delightful, sly jokes to the girls themselves. Anyone might giggle, for instance, at the Mock Turtle’s description of his “Drawling-master” when he was a schoolboy, an “old conger-eel” who taught “Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.” But the Liddell children in particular would recognize their drawing-master, art critic John Ruskin–tall, thin, and not un-eelish–who taught them drawing, sketching, and painting in oils.
The girls would also have recognized the Dodo, whom Alice encounters shortly after falling down the rabbit-hole, after she becomes tiny and is caught up in a flood of her own tears. That’s because the Dodo was Lewis Carroll himself. The choice of bird is a reference to his stutter; he would sometimes pronounce his own last name as “Dodo-Dodgson.”
The Dodo’s companions the Duck, the Lory, and the Eaglet also represent passengers on the boat trip where Carroll first told the story of Alice’s adventures. They are Carroll’s friend Robinson Duckworth, and Alice’s sisters Lorina (Lory) and Edith (Eaglet). The long-winded Mouse may represent Mary Prickett, the Liddells’ governess.
Many of the poems in Alice in Wonderland, which modern readers might see as pure whimsy, were in fact nonsensical parodies of verses that Victorian schoolchildren had to learn by heart. When Alice, in the book, recites “How Doth The Little Crocodile,” she’s trying to remember Isaac Watts’ “Against Idleness and Mischief,” an altogether more moralistic work that begins “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour.”
Watts also wrote “The Sluggard,” a poem warning about the dangers of sloth, which is parodied in Wonderland as “’Tis The Voice Of The Lobster.”
“You Are Old, Father William” is also based on a didactic poem, “The Old Man’s Comforts And How He Gained Them” by Robert Southey. Unlike Father William, Southey’s old man doesn’t stand on his head or balance eels on his nose; instead, he admonishes his young questioner to take care of his health, think of the future, and remember God. The Liddell sisters would have gotten a lot more out of some of these jokes, precisely because they were so familiar with the dry, preachy originals.
Wonderland also had one final secret gift for Alice: if you note textual clues about the month and day, you’ll find that the adventure takes place on May 4. That’s the real Alice Liddell’s birthday.
Of course, you don’t need to be Alice Liddell, or even a Victorian schoolchild, to appreciate Alice’s adventures. It’s no accident that Carroll’s nonsense verses are widely recognized while the didactic poems they’re based on are nearly forgotten, and characters like the Mad Hatter are indelible even if you’ve never met Thomas Randall or Theophilus Carter. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a bona fide classic.
Before it became a classic, though, it was a whimsical tale full of inside jokes for a specific, beloved little girl, who grew up to marry wealthy cricketer Reginald Hargreaves at the age of 28, and was active in high society for much of her life. She had three sons, two of whom were killed in action in World War I.
In 1932, she passed away at the age of 80.