157 years ago today, one of the greatest children’s stories of all time was born: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. On July 4th, 1862, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and his friend Reverend Robinson Duckworth took the three little Liddell sisters (no pun intended)—Edith, Alice and Lorina—on a rowing expedition up the Thames. According to Alice’s diary, it got so hot that the group debarked and sought the shade of a hayrick on the bank. After a while, the girls became bored and clamoured for a story (because this is what little girls do, right?). Dodgson couldn’t refuse the little girls’ wish and began telling them the wonderful story of Alice and her journey to Wonderland (he actually made the story up as he told it. He hadn’t planned it or brought notes, can you believe it?).

When they parted that evening, Alice asked Dodgson to write the story down for her—again, a wish Dodgson could not turn down. Within six months, he’d finished the manuscript—illustrated with his own sketches—which he eventually presented to the Liddell girls under the title: Alice’s Adventures Under Ground—the story that would later be revised and published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

For those wondering: “Who’s this Dodgson guy?,” well it’s Lewis Carroll. What only few people know is that Carroll is only a pen name. The man behind the name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church. If you met him, you would’ve never expected him to be capable of writing one of the most creative stories of all time. He was dry, rather boring; his life was governed by strict rules and habits. Also, he was dreadfully shy: He had awkward manners, the tendency to stammer and often perspiring palms. He didn’t have a lot of adult friends. In fact, adults tended to avoid him because his shyness often made him appear rude (I guess all introverts can relate).

Maybe this was precisely why he sought the company of children. When he was with them, his stammer disappeared, he opened up. He enjoyed playing games with them, taking them on trips and telling them stories (I know what you might be thinking: Yes there are debates about paedophiliac tendencies-however, there’s no evidence whatsoever that actually confirms this. Also, remember that he lived in the 19th century-this was a whole different time).

Of course, it’s possible to enjoy the story without knowing anything about the author or the story behind the story, but being aware of these facts will make you enjoy the story even more. Martin Gardner, who wrote The Annotated Alice in which he explains the meanings behind the text, puts it this way:

“No joke is funny unless you see the point of it, and sometimes a point has to be explained.”

So, let’s take a look at 5 in-jokes which you’ll only understand with some background knowledge:

1. The Opening Poem

“All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied, 
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.”

These are the first lines of the opening poem. Do you see what Carroll did there? Of course, he alludes to the rowing trip he went on with the Liddell sisters on July 4th, 1862: the “golden afternoon” when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born. If you read on, you’ll actually find many more allusions to this day. Consider, for example, the next stanza:

“Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour, 
Beneath such dreamy weather, 
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather! 
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?” 

Get it? The “cruel Three” the speaker is talking about are Edith, Alice and Lorina, who were begging Dodgeson to tell them a story on that afternoon. Have I caught your interest? Read the full poem and try to spot the allusions!

2. Dinah the Cat

“Down, down, down. There was nothing else to do, so Alice soon began talking again. ‘Dinah’ll miss me very much to-night, I should think!’ (Dinah was the cat.) ‘I hope they’ll remember her saucer of milk at tea-time. Dinah, my dear!”

Chapter 1: Down the Rabbit Hole

Who doesn’t remember Dinah?! The name of Alice’s beloved cat doesn’t come from nowhere: it’s the name of the Liddell sisters’ family cat.

3. The Animals in the Caucus Race

“It was high time to go, for the pool was getting quite crowded with the birds and animals that had fallen into it: there was a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures”

Chapter 2: The Pool of Tears

Remember the animals Alice met in her pool of tears? The Dodo is actually a caricature of Dodgeson himself. His stammering made him pronounce his name “Do-do-Dodgson.” The Duck is Robinson Duckworth, who joined Dodgeson on the legendary rowing trip. We know this because Dodgeson once send his friend a copy of the story inscribed “The Duck from the Dodo.” The Lory is Lorina, Alice’s older sister (now it makes sense that the Lory tells Alice “I’m older than you, and must know better”), and the Eaglet is, obviously, Edith.

4. The Setting

“The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps, as this is May, it wo’n’t be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March.”

“The Hatter was the first to break the silence. ‘What day of the month is it?’ he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear. Alice considered a little, and then said ‘The fourth.’

Chapter 6: Pig and Pepper & Chapter 7: A Mad Tea-Party

From this two little scenes we know that the story is set on May 4th—this was Alice Liddell’s birthday. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

5. The Dormouse’s Tale

“‘Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; ‘and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well—”

Chapter 7: A Mad Tea-Party

Needless to say, the three “little” sisters are the Liddell sisters: Lorina’s initials were L.C. (Lorina Charlotte), which is pronounced “Elsie,” Lacie is anagram of Alice and Tillie alludes to Edith’s family nickname Matilda.

If you read the full story, you’ll find quite a lot of in-jokes: some could only be understood by the Liddell girls, some by the residents of Oxford and others only by British contemporaries. Let me know what allusions you can spot!

Also, I’m curious to know: When was the first time you read Alice? Do you remember what you thought of it? If you’ve read it as a child: How has your perception of the story changed as an adult? Let me know in the comment section below!

Source: Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Alice. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.


2 thoughts on “The Story Behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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