An Inappropriate Crush Inspired Alice in Wonderland

You probably know the work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll. He wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which were later turned into Disney movies. While most people know his work, they don’t know the inspiration behind it.

Alice Liddell / Charles Lutwidge Dodgson / / Alice in Wonderland.
Source: Getty Images

Dodgson formed a close relationship with a young girl named Alice Liddell, the real Alice in Wonderland. She was the inspiration behind his novels, and their relationship has been heavily criticized. He was an adult while she was just a child, and his disturbing crush may have been darker than we thought.

The Day He Met Her Was “Significant”

On April 25, 1856, Charles Dodgson met Alice Liddell and her sister while they were playing in a garden. He was 24 at the time and wrote in his diary that the date was quite special. He was busy photographing the cathedral, and the girls were drawn to him because they hadn’t seen a camerabefore.

A portrait of Alice Liddell.
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Dodgson wrote that the family later asked him to take pictures of them. He had clothes and toys in his studio to entertain the girls, and he was nearly as famous for his photography as he was for his writing. But the more interesting part of his life was his infatuation with Alice.

One of Many Siblings

Young Alice was the fourth of Henry and Lorina Liddell’s ten children. When Alice was born, her father was the headmaster of Westminster School, but he moved the family to London after being appointed deanery of Christ Church at Oxford. It was there that they met Dodgson.

A portrait of the Liddell sisters.
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Alice and her family moved into the refurbished deanery for her father’s new job. There were carved lions in the halls, which she and her siblings thought came to life to chase them. She and her two sisters, Lorina and Edith, were her constant childhood companions as they were the closest in age.

He Was Friends With Her Brother

While Alice and her sisters were the first to meet Dodgson, he forged a friendship with her older brother Harry. Dodgson, Harry, and Lorina took several boating trips and picnics to the scenic areas around Oxford. However, when Harry left for school, Alice and Edith started joining in.

A portrait of Lewis Carroll.
Photo by Oscar Gustav Rejlander/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dodgson entertained the young girls with his stories and used them as subjects for his photography hobby. It always seemed that young Alice was his favorite subject during their years as friends. He took many photos of the little girl wearing fancy dresses with her dark brown hair and bangs covering her forehead.

The Famous Story Developed on a Boat Ride

On July 4, 1862, Dodgson took a boat ride from Oxford with 10-year-old Alice, her sisters, and Reverend Robinson Duckworth. As Duckworth rowed the boat, Dodgson was tasked with entertaining the girls, so he created a magical story with many strange and bizarre characters.

A portrait of Alice sitting on a chair.
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He made Alice the subject of the story and told a tale of what happened when she fell down a rabbit hole. Alice loved the story so much and asked Dodgson to write it down for her. It took him a while, but the imaginary tale eventually became a novel.

He Rewrote the Story

It took Dodgson a few months to present Alice with the manuscript for Alice’s Adventures Underground. In the written version he shared with her, Dodgson changed some of the details because he thought he would be able to sell the book with a few tweaks.

A still from the film Alice in Wonderland.
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Dodgson sent the manuscript to his friend George MacDonald for his children to read so he could figure out if people would like the story. The MacDonald children loved the story, which persuaded Dodgson to look for a publisher. He also changed the title to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

He Had Many “Child Friends”

When Dodgson’s book was published with illustrations by John Tenniel in 1865, it put his name on the map. However, it later opened Dodgson up to criticism about his relationships with children, specifically Alice. According to historian Martin Gardner, Dodgson befriended many young girls.

A Victorian croquet party photographed by Lewis Carroll.
Photo by Lewis Carroll/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

However, Gardner noticed that his relationship with Alice differed from the others. Many girls came and went from his life, which people knew about from his photographs, but it was clear that Dodgson loved Alice. He even wrote about her in his diary and penned letters to her.

Their Relationship Abruptly Ended

Although Dodgson had been close with the Liddell family, something happened in 1863 that made them sever their relationship. He had seen the children nearly every day, but then it suddenly stopped. There wasn’t a record of why they stopped speaking, but a diary page offers some clues.

A series of photos from the book’s initial cover.
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Dodgson’s diary entry from June 27-29, 1863 was ripped out of his book, which seems to be when he stopped speaking to the Liddells. Many have assumed that Dodgson wanted to marry 11-year-old Alice, but her parents didn’t approve of the match.

It Wasn’t So Strange

In Victorian England, arrangements like those between Dodgson and Alice were not improbable. Dodgson’s younger brother was in love with a 14-year-old girl but postponed the wedding for six years until she was older. It seems disturbing today, but it was part of the norm back then.

A painting of Lewis Carroll telling stories to young girls.
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Dodgson eventually reconciled with the Liddells but didn’t spend time with their young daughters. However, Alice’s parents allowed him to give her the transcript of his book. The following year, Dodgson wrote that Alice changed as a person when she was 12.

The Provocative Photo

One of the most famous photos of Alice was taken by Dodgson when she was just six years old. He posed her like a beggar girl. She isn’t wearing shoes, and her dress falls off her shoulders. Dodgson said The Beggar Maid poem inspired the photo.

An image of Alice posing for the picture.
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She looks dirty and sad, but the image has a suggestive quality due to her ripped clothes, serious gaze, and raised hand. Many people thought it was weird that Dodgson would photograph young Alice in such an adult-like manner. It made their relationship even more bizarre.

He Said He Liked Children

One of the biggest reasons scholars have questioned Dodgson’s relationship with Alice and other young girls was because he once wrote, “I am fond of children (except boys).” Most of his photography subjects were little girls, and he met them in various places.

A portrait of Dodgson leaning over a window frame.
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While he did confess to artist Gertrude Thomas that he admired pictures of naked boys, there was never any evidence that he acted on his romantic feelings. It might have been inappropriate that he had feelings for young children, but he never touched them.

He Wrote Letters

Although he didn’t act on his feelings, Dodgson wrote to his young friends. He was bold in his letters and once wrote to a 10-year-old girl that he was happy to have her hair to kiss, but he’d rather kiss her instead.

A portrait of an older Alice in her twenties.
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Dodgson wrote, “Extra thanks and kisses for the lock of hair. I have kissed it several times – for want of having you to kiss.” It was common for him to write letters like this. In another, he wrote to a mother about bringing her daughter to dinner.

He Fought His Desires

Dodgson’s relationship with Alice and the other young girls was questionable, but no one found evidence that he acted on his desires. He once talked about “the inclinations of his sinful heart.” However, he wrote that he was able to fight those impure thoughts.

A picture of a young girl photographed by Lewis Carroll.
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He fought his desires by focusing on his mathematics work. Dodgson wrote that performing calculations helped combat “unholy thoughts, which torture with their hateful presence.” Some people go as far as psychoanalyzing him to understand the depth of his feelings towards Alice.

The Proof Is in His Words

In 1933, writer AMR Goldschmidt submitted an essay to Oxford called “Alice in Wonderland Psycho-Analyzed.” He suggested that Dodgson had sexual feelings for Alice. In his analysis, Goldschmidt noted that Alice falling down the rabbit hole is a metaphor for sex.

A dated picture of Lewis Carroll in his garden.
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Goldschmidt might not have been an expert in psychology, but his conclusions caused others to make similar associations. Biographer Morton Cohen examined Dodgson’s diaries and determined that the writer was disturbed and had problems sleeping after spending time with Alice. He dealt with his emotions by writing whimsical stories.

His Final Photograph

Alice eventually grew tired of Dodgson’s attention. Although he never wanted her to grow up, Alice did. He photographed his first love for the final time when she was 18. The photo, taken in 1870, tells a lot about how their relationship devolved over time.

An image of Alice posing uncomfortably for a picture.
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She is dressed in nice clothes with her hands on her lap. You can tell that she looks uncomfortable in front of Dodgson. Maybe Alice had enough of his constant attempts to win her over. She was mature and didn’t have time for his childish ways.

His Everlasting Legacy

While most would be disgusted by Dodgson’s love of children, it was actually well known and celebrated. His obituary in the London Daily Graphic described him like “many bachelors, he was very popular with children and very fond of them.” No one had a problem with it.

An illustration of Alice in Wonderland with a portrait of Lewis Carroll.
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Dodgson’s nephew Stuart Collingwood said his uncle had many young friends, and he wrote a biography with two chapters dedicated to those girls. He mentioned that Dodgson would regularly hug and kiss children. Although Dodgson was friends with women, he didn’t write about them.

It Was Never the Same

After Dodgson and the Liddells cut ties in 1863, Alice didn’t see him for about six months. However, he eventually returned to visiting the Liddell home in December of that year. While it was nice to have him back, things between Alice and Dodgson were never the same.

A portrait of Lewis Carroll leaning on a chair.
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Their former closeness and friendship faded away. Instead, Alice moved on with her life. She was still a young girl, but she didn’t want to re-establish the closeness they once had. It became strained because of Dodgson’s opposition to her father over college politics.

She Almost Married Royalty

Alice met Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Leopold when she was a teenager. The pair reportedly fell in love but couldn’t marry because she did not come from royal blood. Unfortunately, they both had to move on with their lives with other people.

A portrait of Prince Leopold.
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The prince ended up marrying a German princess, while Alice married Reginald Hargreaves. Although they couldn’t be together, Alice and Prince Leopold never stopped loving each other. In 1883, Leopold had a daughter whom he named Alice, and Alice named her son Leopold.

She Suffered a Great Loss

Alice’s son Leopold and his older brother Alan were two of her three children. Prince Leopold became her son’s godfather, and the two remained close. Sadly, Alice’s children were drafted by the British army when World War I started, and they never came home.

A portrait of an older Alice.
Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images

Alice lost two of her three sons in the war, leaving her youngest son, Caryl, as her only surviving child. She and her husband were devastated by the losses. Alice’s husband was never able to recover from his sadness and died in 1926.

A Member of High Society

Alice’s husband inherited a considerable fortune and played cricket for Hampshire. With Reginald by her side, Alice became a noted society hostess and was the first president of Emery Down Women’s Institute. She started going by Lady Hargreaves, but there was no basis for the title.

A portrait of Queen Victoria and her family.
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After Reginald died, Alice couldn’t afford the cost of maintaining their home, so she sold her transcript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground for what would be $20,000 today. She wanted to keep her high society life.

The Manuscript Was Special

The manuscript of the story Dodgson wrote for Alice later became the possession of Eldridge R. Johnson and was displayed at Columbia University on Dodgson’s 100th birthday. Alice was present for the celebration, and on her trip to the United States, she met another storybook character.

An image of Alice as an older woman.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

While in the US, Alice met Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of the brothers who inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. It must have been nice to meet another person who inspired such a famous character. At the time, Alice was 80, and her health was starting to decline.

Her Fame Skyrocketed

Alice evaded the public eye for most of her life until she sold the original manuscript. The sale, coupled with her visit to the US for Dodgson’s centenary celebration, saw Alice’s fame skyrocket. She received an honorary degree from Columbia University for her service to literature.

A portrait of Alice in her late years.
Source: Yale University

She gave a commencement speech that was broadcast across the world, and Alice consulted on a Paramount film adaptation of the story, released in 1933. Alice never expected to inspire a cultural phenomenon, but it led her on an extraordinary journey.

Her Legacy Lived On

Two years after her trip to the US, Alice died at age 82 of natural causes. Her ashes were buried at St. Michael and All Angels in Lyndhurst, England, where she lived most of her adult life. Although she passed away, her legacy still lives on.

An illustration sketch from Alice in Wonderland.
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Historian Martin Gardner wrote The Annotated Alice in the 1960s and shared that Dodgson wrote to Alice after her marriage. He said, “I have had some scores of child-friends since your time, but they have been quite a different thing.”

The Manuscript Moved

Alice sold the original manuscript, which was on display at Columbia University for some time. In 1948, it was returned to the UK after being purchased by a group of wealthy American benefactors as thank you for fighting alongside the US in WWII.

A portrait of Alice in Columbia University.
Source: Columbia University

It was a lovely gift to the British people because it was a part of their cultural history. Today, the original copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is worth upwards of $3 million. Luckily, you don’t need millions to see it on display at the British Museum.

The Missing Diary Pages

Long after Alice and Dodgson died, the missing pages from his diary are still a mystery. However, in 1996, British playwright Karoline Leach found a note allegedly written by Dodgson’s niece, Violet.

A dated portrait of Alice as a young girl.
Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images

The note said, “LC (Dodgson) learns from Mrs. Liddell that he is supposed to be using the children as a means of paying court to the governess – he is also supposed to be courting Ina (Lorina).” It implies that the relationship between Dodgson and the Liddells didn’t end because he wanted to marry Alice.

Her Sister Loved Him

If what the note says is true, then the break between Dodgson and the Liddells was caused by concern over alleged gossip linking Dodgson to Alice’s older sister. In a biography about Dodgson, Jenny Woolf suggests that the problem was caused by Lorina becoming too attached to Dodgson.

A picture of Alice and her sisters taken by Lewis Carroll.
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Woolf used her theory to explain why the pages would be removed. She believed they were ripped out of his diary to prevent Lorina from being offended or humiliated about having her feelings for Dodgson made public. Maybe he wanted to marry Alice, but Lorina got in the way.

Alice Was Different in the Book

While Dodgson used Alice as his protagonist in the magical tale, the storybook character is very different than the child he loved. The girl in the story has long blonde hair, but the real Alice had short brown hair. In later years, Dodgson claimed Alice was entirely imaginary.

An illustration sketch of Alice’s character.
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There was a rumor that Dodgson sent a photo to the illustrator of his other young friend, Mary Hilton Badcock, suggesting he used her as a model. However, documentation to support this theory has never been found. Another theory states he used Edith Liddell as a model.

Direct Links to Alice

Despite the many theories about the model behind the storybook version of Alice, Dodgson made direct links to his young friend in the book. First, he set the dates in the books as May 4 (Alice’s birthday) and November 4 (her half-birthday).

An illustration sketch from the book.
Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

In Through the Looking Glass, the fictional Alice declares that her age is “seven and a half exactly,” the same age the real Alice was on that date. Additionally, Dodgson dedicated them “to Alice Pleasance Liddell.” The book also starts with three little sisters, much like Alice and her sisters.

Other Connections to Alice

At the end of Through the Looking Glass, the acrostic poem spells out Alice’s full name. Besides the connections to Alice herself, it is believed that Alice’s father is the White Rabbit. He was head of both the college and cathedral, so he was a busy man, always in a hurry and often late.

An illustration from the book.
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Another explanation about her father is that he frequently left his place at High Table through a small private door known to the rest of the college as the rabbit hole. It’s clear that he inspired Dodgson.

It Created a Legacy

Although the story behind Alice in Wonderland and the relationship between Alice and Dodgson was bizarre, the tale created a legacy that lives on today. In 1951, Disney released the animated version of the book, which has become a classic film.

A promotional still from the film.
Source: Copyright: Walt Disney Pictures

In 2010 and 2016, Disney recreated Dodgson’s books with two live-action films, Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. We can assume that Dodgson never realized how his story would impact the future of literature and film and how Alice’s story would live on long after she was gone.

For our next story, we are looking into the Pink Panther franchise and its 11 films.