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What Was the Real Alice in Wonderland Like? Her Great-Grandson is Fascinated

Posted: 25/11/11 00:00

The fascination with Alice in Wonderland never seems to cease. Since the publication of the books in 1860 the little girl Alice Liddell and the stories she badgered Charles Dodgson, a.k.a Lewis Carroll, to tell her have obsessed filmmakers, artists, writers, financiers and so many millions of others. Even in her own life she was photographed by the famous Julia Margaret Cameron and painted by William Richmond.

In the last 18 months alone Alice in Wonderland has received the Tim Burton treatment, there have been two ballets and this month exhibition Alice in Wonderland through the Visual Arts opened at the Tate Liverpool. She is a free spirit who has been appropriated as a heroine to every kind of cause. Kokoschka and Max Ernst painted Alice surrounded by the horrors of the Second World War. To them she was an independent and single-minded figure in a crazy world. Surrealists like Dali loved her because they identified with Carroll's fascination for the extraordinary behind formal outward appearances. Adrian Piper's 1966 Alice down the rabbit Hole is an acid trip. So many historical figures are worshipped as sexual stereotypes - brave men, soldiers, rebels, and their female carers but Alice is a rare idol. She could be male or female.

I have lived with Alice all my life - she was my great-grandmother. She was in the house I grew up in the form books, painting, letters and photographs. She died in 1934 when my mother was two and ever since, although my mother can't really remember her, she has patiently attended a variety of functions and answered questions - some very learned, some very eccentric - to do with her grandmother.

As a child I never read Alice but this would be in common with many other children. Many have commented that the book is for the child in adults. It is, of course, an honour and gives me an interesting dimension to other people that Alice was my antecedent. So the question that interests me is why Alice Liddell, rather than all the other children Carroll photographed?

It has been passed down through my family that Alice was the most persistent, pestering Dodgson to write down the stories he told her. Probably too she influenced the way the story unravelled too, we all know young children do direct stories told to them. She has been the only muse ever to have been awarded a University doctorate from Columbia New York.

Edward Wakeling, the world's greatest expert on Lewis Carroll, explains a child had to be quite resilient as Carroll's approach to his young friends was to tease them. Alice gave as good as she got. Her two sisters were more reluctant to participate. Alice was precocious and energetic but at the same time would patiently sit for photographs for hours, loving the attention, whereas her sisters Edith and Lorina felt uncomfortable in front of the lens.

Was she the subject of paedophilic attention? Wakeling says of all the many photos Carroll took only very few were of little girls. He insists that he was not obsessed by the prepubescent female. No evidence of improper relationship of a sexual nature exists. Letters were destroyed by Alice's mother between Carroll and Alice but possibly because, like any geniuses, he was probably weird and annoying. This does not necessarily add up to being a paedophile.

Alice married into a rich Northern industrial family and lived a life very different to her childhood. She brought up three sons in a country house in the New Forest, two of whom were killed in The First World War. Her husband was a hunting, shooting and fishing type. But maybe her withdrawal from the literary world of her childhood saved her. Unlike the Llewellyn Davies boys - the inspiration for the Peter Pan story - or Christopher Robin she managed to escape from the shadow of her literary counterpart.

Alice in Wonderland Through the Visual Arts is on at Tate Liverpool until 29th January 2012 www.tate.org/liverpool