Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Real Alice

"The Real Alice" by Anne Clark: A Review
This is a biography of Alice Pleasance Liddell, who provided the happy inspiration for "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Alice Through The Looking Glass" of the Reverend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll); Dodgson was a friend of the young Alice and her sisters, and would often extemporise with witty, fantastic tales. It was at Alice's insistence that he wrote up one of these, and it was this story, entitled "Alice's Adventures Underground", that formed the core of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".
Alice was born, in 1852, to Henry Liddell, who was at that time not only headmaster of Westminster School, but also domestic chaplain to the Prince Albert. As a result, "Alice's baptism took place in Westminster Abbey itself."
In 1855, Liddell left the headmastership of Westminster School to take up an appointment as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. After moving into the Deanery, Alice's parents "set to work immediately to build a home and develop a way of living which was to transform the Deanery into a glittering social centre, the focal point of Oxford Society for the next thirty-six years." Consequently, much of Alice's early life was to mirror, in microcosm, the dazzling splendour of upper class Victorian society.
When Alice's brother was born in 1863, the Prince of Wales consented to be godfather, "and it was he who chose the names" - Albert Edward Arthur. Indeed, in the same year, "the newly wed Prince and Princess of Wales favoured Oxford with a visit" and "Alice and the rest of the children were wildly excited at the impending visit, for the royal couple were actually coming to stay at the Deanery."
It was at this time that Alice and her sisters were seeing a good deal of Charles Dodgson. Together with Dodgson's friend Duckworth, they "went out boating several times each summer." It was, as Alice remembered "one summer afternoon when the sun was so hot" that Dodgson began to create his fantastic tale of "Alice". However, Dodgson's friendship with Alice's family began to break up shortly after this, largely as a result of disagreements with Mrs Liddell, and by 1865 "the breach with the family was complete".
An interesting feature of this book is that it shows how the class distinctions of Victorian society were carefully guarded. When "a romance blossomed" between Alice and Prince Leopold (Queen Victoria's younger son), "the subject of matrimony constantly recurred"; surprisingly, it was Alice's mother who "demolished the proposal from the outset" because she believed that the Queen expected "all her sons to marry princesses"; instead, Alice was to marry Reginald Hargreaves, whose family's social standing was of equal parity with the Liddells.
The book tells of Alice up to her death in 1934. It is a tale that may well have been typical of a good many large Victorian families; inherited wealth was expended as if it were income, and the cost of up keeping retainers increased, so that gradually Alice's family had to lose most of their servants, and, by 1928, it was only by auctioning her manuscript of "Alice's Adventures Underground" at Sotheby's (for £15,400) that Alice was able to raise sufficient funds to maintain the estate.
This is a well-researched book, which gives a fresh look at what upper class Victorian society was like, and how it came to fade away with passing years.

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