Who was who in Alice's Wonderland

A new book identifies eminent Victorians such as Darwin and Ruskin as the inspiration for some of Lewis Carroll's exotic characters. Marianne Macdonald reports on the decoding of a classic
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The Independent Online
WONDERLAND may never be quite the same again. Two British academics studying Alice's adventures believe they have decoded Lewis Carroll's texts and uncovered the real-life identities of many of the principal characters in the stories, from the Queen of Hearts to the Cheshire Cat and from the Mad Hatter to the White Rabbit.

After re-examining the private diaries of Charles Dodgson - the Oxford tutor who wrote as Lewis Carroll - and studying his little-known photographs of adults, they say they have identified in the stories such Victorian personalities as the painter and critic John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, and Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution. Also lampooned by Carroll, more or less gently, are a variety of senior figures in Oxford University and members of the family of the girl who provided the inspiration for the questing but matter-of-fact Alice herself.

In their book, The Red King's Dream, to be published in September by Jonathan Cape, Jo Elwyn-Jones and J Francis Gladstone not only appear to resolve one of literature's more enduring and charming riddles - where did Carroll's exotic characters spring from? - but also throw light on his attitudes to leading intellectual figures of the day.

The book may prove the most significant contribution to Carroll scholarship since 1947, when Helmut Gernsheim discovered the extent of Carroll's photographic collection, including his studies of naked young girls.

As their starting point, Elwyn-Jones and Gladstone, a husband-and-wife team, take the generally accepted view that Alice was Alice Liddell, whose father was the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll was a maths lecturer.

They also remind us that Carroll admitted in later life he had included himself in Alice in Wonderland in the shape of the clumsy Dodo. Charles Dodgson had a stutter, and so would introduce himself as "Do-Do-Do-Dodgson". It became a nickname among close friends.

But according to Elwyn-Jones and Gladstone, Alice's sisters also feature in the book. The Lory and the Eaglet, who figure with the Dodo in an early scene as Alice escapes from the Pool of Tears, are her older sister Lorina and younger sister Edith. The sulky Lory says at one stage to Alice: "I am older than you, and must know better", while the Eaglet complains: "I don't know the meaning of half these long words, and, what's more, I don't believe you do either." Alice, for her part, says of the assembled animals in the scene that she feels "as if she had known them all her life".

Carroll knew Alice Liddell from when she was four, and one of his first photographic subjects. They met frequently until she was 11, when her mother told Carroll to stop seeing her - it has never been discovered why - and burnt his letters to her. The authors argue that he took revenge by caricaturing the determined and ambitious Mrs Liddell as the tyrannical Queen of Hearts ("Off with her head!") and Dean Liddell as the vacillating King. "Here was Liddell as seen by Carroll," they write, "making up his mind regardless of what others said, content that his Queen should get on with her own profession of executing people."

Charles Darwin, the book says, makes his appearance in the form of the enormous Puppy with which Alice plays after she has shrunk through eating cakes. When she waves a stick the Puppy jumps playfully, but she feels this is "like having a game of play with a cart-horse". Eventually, after a lot of pointless running about and barking, it "sat down a good way off, panting, with its tongue hanging out of its mouth, and its great eyes half shut". This is not the first time Darwin has been linked with Alice. In 1935 the literary critic William Empson suggested that Alice's changes in size were an allusion to evolutionary theory.

Other characters, it seems, are included in Carroll's book to poke fun at the petty squabbles of Oxford University in the mid-19th century. John Ruskin, who became Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford soon after it was published in 1865, is represented as the lazy Gryphon which dances the Lobster Quadrille. Ruskin was obsessed with griffins and devoted a section of his book Modern Painters to them. Carroll had met him and noted in his diary: "His appearance was rather disappointing."

The busy, fussy White Rabbit - the first inhabitant of Wonderland that Alice meets - is Professor Henry Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. Elwyn-Jones and Gladstone note that outside his fictional house is the brass plaque of a kind used by doctors (marked "W. Rabbit") and they suggest that the medical jokes surrounding the poison and the cake that affect Alice's size are Carroll's hidden clues to his true identity.

The Mouse is Carroll's co-tutor Thomas Prout - his complaints in his "long tale" match his arguments against the Dean and canons of Christ Church, and he lives in "the House", the nickname for the college. The Mock Turtle is Henry Liddon, another co-tutor - the turtle had its "lid on". The Duck, another creature from the Pool of Tears, is Robinson Duckworth, a friend of Carroll's and a fellow of Trinity College.

The Hatter's Tea Party, perhaps the most celebrated scene in all of Carroll's work, is another rich vein of hidden meanings, the authors say, and once decoded emerges as a satire on the Christian Socialists, of whom Carroll disapproved. "[It is] no more than a vicious parody of socialism," the book claims, "a portrait of an ostensibly sharing group whose members squabbled incessantly. They persecuted their weaker brethren, had none of the supplies they advertised - there was no wine, for example, even though they offered it - nor would they listen to the polite questions of an intelligent outsider, Alice."

The overbearing Hatter ("Your hair wants cutting") is Charles Kingsley, who was Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. A Christian Socialist known for his domineering ways, he campaigned, among other things, for the rights of hatters. The sleepy Dormouse dunked in the teapot by the Hatter and March Hare is the Rev Frederick Maurice, whom Carroll had photographed, and who was in Kingsley's group of reformers. The word "dormouse" evokes his name, as does the M-joke at the tea party, where the Dormouse tells of the sisters in the treacle well drawing things beginning with "M".

As for the March Hare, he may be Julius Hare, a theologian friend of Kingsley's who had a reputation both for poor public speaking and for forgetting the presence of guests invited to dinner.

The languid Caterpillar, which Alice meets sitting on a mushroom smoking a hookah, may also be a play on words to suggest Joseph Hooker, appointed director of Kew Gardens at the time Carroll was writing. His fellow botanists were known for smoking opium, a habit they had picked up on collecting trips to China.

Other Victorian personalities who are said to pop up in the book in disguise are Disraeli, as the pathetic lizard Bill; Ellen Terry, the actress, as the Tiger-Lily; and Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair, as the White Queen. Finally, the squabbling Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who appear in Through the Looking Glass, have in the past been seen as an allegory for the High and Low Church or Oxford and Cambridge, but the authors claim they were modelled on the poet Tennyson's spoilt children, Lionel and Hallam.

Elwyn-Jones and Gladstone began their quest after discovering a link between Carroll and the Victorian prime minister W E. Gladstone (an ancestor), himself a Christ Church scholar, which they believe identified him as the Unicorn.

Their claims, however, will not go unchallenged. Morton Cohen, a leading Carroll scholar, welcomed the fresh research last week but questioned some of its conclusions. "Ruskin is not the Gryphon but the Drawling Master described by the Mock Turtle," he said, "while the Hatter's tea party has been called a parody of everything from evolution to religion. I don't think Carroll would have parodied Maurice as the Dormouse because he worshipped him - he was his idol. Nor do I think Carroll would have satirised other religious figures because he had taken Orders and his religion was sacrosanct."

Elwyn-Jones believes that their work will force a reassessment of Carroll: "We are convinced of the existence of these secret parodies because the Alice books were so much his best work. He was feeding off the reality around him."

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