By Karen Millar
Oxford, the “City of Dreaming Spires”, is undoubtedly one of the jewels in England’s crown. Its striking mix of architectural styles, academic atmosphere, and peaceful gardens and river walks make it the perfect place to pause and view England as it was meant to be. But for the literary traveler, Oxford is more than just “Olde England”, it is a true gem, and at just forty-five minutes from London by train, it is an absolute must-see.
Oxford’s literary links (both real and fictional) are numerous, and stretch back over many years. The city and its neighboring villages are home to a number of contemporary literary greats such as Booker prize-winner Ian McEwan, crime writer Colin Dexter, and travel writer Redmond O’Hanlon. The Sunday Times sponsored the Oxford Literary Festival. It takes place each year in March, and internationally acclaimed authors regularly give talks in various places around the city. The colleges that comprise the University of Oxford also boast an impressive literary alumni list: Graham Greene studied at Balliol College (whilst in Oxford, he regularly wrote in student magazines, and was an editor of The Oxford Outlook); Magdalen College counts Oscar Wilde and C.S. Lewis as former students, and the university as a whole includes J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Elliot, Aldous Huxley, and Nobel Laureates William Golding and Sir Vidia S. Naipaul to name but a few, as former students. All will have walked the cobbled streets of Cornmarket, drank in the numerous nearby watering holes, and found inspiration in the heart of the city itself.
Yet in amongst the role call of such literary stalwarts (some critically, others publicly acclaimed), one name, arguably Oxford’s most famous and enduring literary progeny, will strike a chord with everyone regardless of age, nationality or literary preferences; former University of Oxford student and lecturer of almost thirty years, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author the Rev Charles L. Dodgson – better known as Lewis Carroll.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematician, Anglican clergyman, logician, keen amateur photographer and most famously, a writer. Born at Daresbury, Cheshire, in 1832, he was the eldest son, and third of eleven children. Educated first at Richmond Grammar School and then Rugby School, in 1854 he graduated with honors in mathematics from Christ Church College, Oxford and began lecturing under the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship a position he held for the next twenty-six years. He created his pen name by translating his first two names (Charles Lutwidge) into Latin, Carolus Lodovicus, then anglicizing it, and switching the names around to form Lewis Carroll.
It was whilst lecturing at Christ Church that he was introduced to Henry Liddell, who arrived to take up the position of Dean, and to Liddell’s wife and children. On meeting the family, Dodgson was instantly charmed by Liddell’s daughters Lorina, Edith, and in particular, Alice, and it was Alice Liddell who would soon become the inspiration for his most famous work.
Dodgson in Oxford
Christ Church College was Dodgson’s home and workplace for many years. Easily one of the city’s most magnificent buildings, it is located within easy walking distance of the main bus and train stations and the city centre amenities. Whilst in Oxford, Dodgson lived in rooms at the North West corner of the colleges Tom Quad (home to the imposing, Christopher Wren designed Tom Tower – named for the impressive seven-ton bell it houses, Great Tom). Henry Liddell lived in a house on the north-east corner of the Quad. Dodgson’s rooms overlooked St. Aldates and he set up a small photography studio on the roof where he indulged his hobby – a keen photographer, the Liddell girls were his regular subjects. Although the individual rooms of Liddell and Dodgson cannot be visited as they are still in use by students, when walking through this majestic building–its quads, picture gallery, medieval garden and cathedral–it’s easy to imagine what academic life would have been like when Dodgson, Liddell, Alice and her sisters walked through its halls.
In the grounds of Christ Church, where the group would regularly play croquet (though not with flamingos), stands a magnificent Chestnut tree. Dodgson, at one point a sub-librarian, would often look out the library windows and watch Alice Liddell’s cat Dinah sitting in the tree whilst Alice played in the gardens below. Dinah herself features in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as does a certain other tree-sitting, ever-grinning moggy. (Dodgson routinely used people, places and memories from his own life as inspiration for his stories – Dodgson and friend Robinson Duckworth, appear in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as the Dodo and the Duck, with Edith and Lorina Liddell as the Eaglet and the Lori). But it is inside the building, in the impressive dining hall (which, incidentally, was also the inspiration for the Hogwarts School dining hall in the Harry Potter movies) where the college’s Dodgson / Alice connections are most apparent. The fifth window on the left-hand wall of the hall shows portraits of Alice and the many fantastical creatures she met; opposite the window, the brass firedogs guarding the fireplace have incredibly long necks, just like Alice had at one point: an immense length of neck which seemed to rise like a stalk; above the raised High Table at the head of the hall, hangs a large portrait of the college’s founder King Henry VIII who famously executed two of his wives and the possible inspiration for the Queen of Hearts perpetual cry “Off with her head!”; and behind the High Table is a paneled door concealing a narrow spiral staircase similar to a rabbit hole: Alice’s father (who seemed always to be in a hurry), would leave dinner each night by way of this staircase, hence Dodgson’s casting of him as the White Rabbit.
But it was not only Christ Church that inspired Dodgson. Outside, opposite the visitors entrance to Christ Church College sits The Alice Shop. This cozy, quaint store, located in a five hundred year old building filled with Alice goodies and Dodgson / Caroll literature, was the original Old Sheep Shop from Through the Looking-Glass. Alice Liddell bought her barley sugars from here, so both the shop and the shopkeeper (whose bleating voice sounded to Dodgson like a sheep) were soon written into his stories. This picture perfect little shop has been around since the 1830s, and is in reality a mirror image of the shop in the book as if the visitor had actually stepped back through the looking glass.
The Origins of Alice
Alice’s extraordinary adventures began on a boating trip down the river Thames (known as the Isis in Oxford) going from the city to the villages of Nuneham Courtney, Binsey and Godstow in the summer of 1862 – Dodgson and friend Robinson Duckworth frequently entertained the Liddell girls by taking them on such boat trips and picnics. To keep them amused, Dodgson began weaving wondrous and fantastical tales, at the heart of which he placed the girls. Beginning in Salter’s boatyard at Folly Bridge, and taking over two hours to row down the Thames to Godstow, it was here that the stories which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were first told. Throughout that summer, the group’s boat trips became something of a tradition.
Today, those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Dodgson, Duckworth and the girls, can do so either by row or motorboat from Salters Steamers as they did, or by walking the Thames path – a foot and bike path that runs the length of the river from its source in Gloucestershire into London.
The village of Binsey where the group often visited is a beautiful hamlet and was home to some relatives of Ms. Mary Prickett, Alice Liddell’s governess (and allegedly the real life Queen of Hearts). The girls would often visit Binsey with Ms. Prickett as well as with Dodgson and Duckworth, and it is here that the literary traveler can find the inspiration for another of Dodgson’s tales: at the Mad Hatter’s tea party the Dormouse tells the story of the three little girls Elsie (LC, Lorina Charlotte), Lacie (an anagram of Alice) and Tillie (Edith’s pet name) who lived at the bottom of the treacle well – St Margaret’s Church in Binsey lies next to the original treacle well (treacle was a medieval term meaning healing).
The Publication of Alice
Many a day we rowed together on that quiet stream the three little maidens and I and many a fairy tale had been extemporised for their benefit yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written down for her.
Having succumbed to Alice Liddell’s petitioning, Dodgson began putting his tall tales onto paper. In 1863, on reading his new manuscript (initially titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground), his long time friends, the MacDonalds, struck by its potential urged Dodgson to seek publication. Soon after, Macmillan agreed to publish it and John Tenniel committed to illustrating it. It was re-titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and in 1865, Dodgson / Carroll achieved huge success with its publication. Yet his success was tempered – it was in this same year that he and the Liddells had a falling out, and Dodgson would not see Alice Liddell again for many years.
After Alice’s success, Dodgson took time out to travel through Europe before returning to England to begin Behind the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Saw There (later changed to Through the Looking-Glass). After the death of his father in 1868, he left Oxford and moved to Guildford, finishing Through the Looking-Glass and working on stage and nursery adaptations of Alices Adventures in Wonderland.
In 1881, he gave up his Christ Church lectureship, planning to devote his time to writing mathematical books for children, and within a few years was working on no less than seven books on logic or mathematics, two on games and puzzles and seven others on various topics. It was not until 1891 that Dodgson and Alice (now Alice Hargreaves) would meet again.
Curiouser and Curiouser
Ever controversial, during his lifetime Dodgson was caught up in several scandals and rumors; a reputation he courted up until his death of pneumonia in 1898, aged 65. At one point, Dodgson and colleague Thomas Vere Bayne were rumored to be responsible for London’s infamous Jack the Ripper murders: a far-fetched theory which was based on a number of anagrams in two of Dodgson’s works which allegedly contained hidden descriptions of the murders. However, anagram analysis and proven alibis meant that the pair remained well-known but unlikely suspects. Another rumor alleges that Queen Victoria, so charmed by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, had asked to read more of his work, and was duly given a copy of An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. However, in a postscript to the second edition of Symbolic Logic, Dodgson himself vehemently denied this:
I take this opportunity of giving what publicity I can to my contradiction of a silly story, which has been going the round of the papers, about my having presented certain books to Her Majesty the Queen. It is so constantly repeated, and is such absolute fiction, that I think it worth while to state, once for all, that it is utterly false in every particular: nothing even resembling it has occurred.
Dodgson’s Literary Resume
When he was young, Dodgson wrote to entertain his brothers and sisters. He didn’t stop writing during his school days, and in 1860 he published his first two mathematical textbooks; by February 1861, he had completed another and started work on four more. At various times his work appeared in the national publications, The Comic Times and The Train, as well as smaller magazines such as the Whitby Gazette and the Oxford Critic, and later in his career he wrote Curiosa Mathematica, Symbolic Logic, and Notes By An Oxford Chiel (a collection of mathematical works). Although prolifically published in the fields of logic, mathematics and proportional representation, Dodgson’s most famous writings will always be Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. However, no resume of his work would be complete without mention of the much loved comic poems The Hunting of the Snark and The Jaberwocky, and his many short stories and children’s works including Euclid and his Modern Rivals, Sylvie and Bruno and The Alphabet Cipher.
Other UK Dodgson Sites
Dodgson’s magical stories of grinning cats, caterpillars with hookahs, magical mushrooms and tea parties, captured the imagination of more than just Alice Liddell, and he is remembered fondly throughout the UK.
At Daresbury in Cheshire where he was born, and where his father was the perpetual curate at All Saints Church, there now is the Lewis Carroll Birthplace Trust, various Carroll landmarks and the church itself which houses a beautiful stained glass window featuring characters from his books. (It has been said that the mythical characters carved into the church pulpit, together with traditional Cheshire stories were also a great influence to Dodgson).
Other sites of interest include Croft-on-Tees (where he was raised), Rugby (where he taught), Eastbourne (where he vacationed), London (where there lies a memorial stone in Poets corner at Westminster Cathedral) and Guildford (where lived in his later life and is now buried).
Literary Oxford has much to offer, but when tired feet and thirst demand a rest at the end of the day, Oxfordshire turns another page. A visit to the pub The Turf (which appeared in both Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited) should do the trick, or why not finish off an Alice-inspired boat trip with a drink at The Trout in Godstow – it also featured in Waugh’s novel, and is widely known to be Inspector Morse author Colin Dexter’s favorite watering hole, and is one of Oxfordshire’s most famous pubs.
From the well at Binsey to the Old Sheep Shop, and from boat trips on the Thames to the impressive quads of Christ Church College, Oxford and its picturesque surrounding countryside hold many fascinating finds for all literary travelers, but for Alice and Dodgson fans in particular, an Oxford visit is like stepping into Wonderland.