06 July 2024

Alice Liddell and her
‘curioser’ childhood
friendships in Oxford
with Lewis Carroll

The ‘Alice’ stories began on 4 July 1862 on a boat trip from Folly Bridge in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I am musing over these few days about Alice in Wonderland and how the Alice stories began on a boat trip in Oxford on 4 July 1862, when Lewis Carroll first told the ‘Alice’ stories to Alice Liddell and her two sisters.

Alice’s Day is an annual city-wide celebration in Oxford on the first Saturday in July of all things about Alice in Wonderland, and this year it takes place today (6 July 2024).

There have been events in venues across Oxford today, including the Museum of Oxford, the History of Science Museum, the Oxford Botanic Garden, the Weston Library, Alice’s Shop, and the Story Museum. They include theatre, puppetry, crafting, trails, dance, games, lectures and more, to celebrate one of literature’s – and one of Oxford’s – best-loved story heroes.

Mark Davies gave an illustrated talk in Saint Giles Church on ‘Alice’s Adventures in Oxford’, discussing Lewis Carroll and his books. He explained the relevance of this day, revealed the real people, places and events that inspired the Alice books, and highlighted Lewis Carroll’s less well-known connections with local institutions such as Lucy’s Iron Foundry, Saint John’s College, and a floating chapel on the Oxford Canal.

Mark Davies is a local Oxford historian, a trustee of Lewis Carroll Society, and the author of Alice in Waterland, Alice’s Oxford on Foot and Stories of Oxford Castle.

The Revd Charles Dodgson – aka Lewis Carroll – was a Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The day’s events and programmes commemorate an important moment for children’s literature and for Oxford. On that afternoon on 4 July 1862, the Revd Charles Dodgson, a mathematician and a don at Christ Church, took 10-year-old Alice and her sisters Edith (then 8) and Lorina (13), daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on a boat trip from Folly Bridge to Godstow, where they had a picnic.

There, they begged him to tell her a story, so he invented tales of a girl called Alice who had fantastical adventures. He wrote this up for her in a fine manuscript entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in 1864. Under the pen name Lewis Carroll it was published in an expanded version as Alice Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, followed by Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.

Alice became one of the most popular, most widely quoted and most widely translated children’s book ever written. It marked the birth of modern children’s literature.

After Alice, children’s books became less stuffy and more entertaining. Oxford became a world centre of children’s stories and an inspirational home to many authors and illustrators, including Kenneth Grahame, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Philip Pullman.

‘The city of dreaming spires’ … a view of Oxford across Christ Church Meadow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Lewis Carroll is the pen-name chosen by the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898: Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, the Latin for Lutwidge, his middle name, while Carroll is an Irish surname similar to Carolus, the Latin form of his first name Charles.

On this Alice Day, it should not be forgotten that Charles Dodgson had strong Irish family connections, and that he came from a clerical family rooted in the Church of Ireland family and with Tractarian sympathies.

And I was reminded some time ago that he had some distant – very distant – and curious – very curious – connections with descendants of the Comerford family.

Lewis Carroll’s great-grandfather Charles Dodgson complained as Bishop of Ossory of the poor stabling at the Palace in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lewis Carroll, or the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was the great-grandson of Charles Dodgson (1722-1795), who was nominated Bishop of Ossory 250 years ago in succession to Richard Pococke. He was consecrated in Saint Werburgh’s Church, Dublin, on 11 August 1765 by William Carmichael, Archbishop of Dublin.

Ten years later, he moved from Kilkenny when he became Bishop of Elphin on 12 April 1775. King George III congratulated him on this promotion, saying that he ought indeed to be thankful to have got away from a palace where the stabling was so bad. He died in Dublin on 21 January 1795 and was buried at Saint Bride’s Church.

Lewis Carroll’s father, the Ven Charles Dodgson (1800-1861), was a Vicar in Cheshire and Yorkshire before becoming Archdeacon of Richmond. In the great theological debates in the 19th century, Archdeacon Dodgson was a High Church Anglican, inclining to Anglo-Catholicism. He was a college friend of Edward Bouverie Pusey, and an admirer of John Henry Newman. A supporter of the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians, he contributed the volume on Tertullian to Pusey’s series, Library of the Fathers, and in all wrote 24 books on theology.

His son, Charles Dodgson, was regarded as ‘stiffly conservative’ in his theological views at Oxford, his diary is interspersed with private prayers, and when asked about his beliefs in 1897 said he was a member of the Church of England, adding: ‘I owe all to him who loved me, and died on the Cross of Calvary.’

As a Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, he was ordained a deacon on 22 December 1861. But a year later, when the time came to be ordained priest, he appealed to the Dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell (1811-1898) for permission not to proceed. This was against college rules and Dodgson faced expulsion. However, Liddell changed his mind overnight and allowed Dodgson to remain without becoming a priest.

Why did Dodgson decide against ordination to the priesthood? Some suggestions say his speech impediment explains his reluctance, as he had a difficulty in reading lessons and prayers and in preaching in his own words.

Certainly, Dodgson remained active in ministry: he preached regularly and was a friend and admirer of the theologian FD Maurice.

Whatever the reason, his stammer, which was so marked that he often stumbled over his own name, was an inspiration for the Do-Do in Alice, and Alice herself was Liddell’s own daughter, Alice Liddell (1852-1934).

The Comerford family of Summerville, Cork, were ancestors of Agnes Hull … did she replace Alice Liddell in Lews Carroll’s affections?

The distant – I ought to be honest, very distant – link between Lewis Carroll and the descendants of the Comerford family come through the descendants of the Revd Patrick Comerford Law (1797-1869), of Summerville, Co Cork, and Ballyalley, Killaloe, Co Clare. He was the grandson of Patrick Comerford, a wine merchant, of George’s Quay, Cork, and Summerville, Co Cork, who died in 1796.

Patrick Comerford Law was educated at Trinity College Dublin (BA, 1818), and first practised at the Irish Bar. He was ordained deacon 1828, priest 1829, and was an army chaplain in Birr, King’s County (Offaly), Rector of Samlesbury, Lancashire (1829), Rector of North Repps, Norfolk (1830-1869), Rural Dean (1842), and a chaplain to the Marquis of Cholmondeley.

Patrick Comerford Law married Frances Arbuthnot, daughter of Bishop Alexander Arbuthnot of Killaloe, at Balbriggan, Co Dublin, on 17 October 1828. Patrick died at North Repps Rectory, Norfolk, on 15 April 1869. His daughter Frances (‘Fanny’) Amelia Law (1833-1883) was born at North Repps Rectory on 1 April 1833. She married Henry Charles Hull (1833-1902), a barrister, in 1862. They were the parents of four daughters, including Agnes Georgina Hull (1868-1936), who had a special friendship with the Revd Charles L Dodgson.

He got to know the Hull family while they were living in Eastbourne in 1877, and regularly took the four girls, Alice, Agnes, Evelin and Jessie, to the theatre, exhibitions, regattas and fireworks, constantly bought them presents, took them on walks and often stayed over in the Hull family home in London.

In all, Lewis Carroll wrote 31 letters to Agnes Hull, and also gave an older sister, Alice Hull, a copy of his book Doublets: A Word Puzzle. The letters portray a curious relationship where Carroll is ‘teasing, whimsical, wry, affectionate and at the same time deeply sensitive,’ according to Christie’s, who sold the letters in 1991. The letters include riddles, word games and conundrums that would delight a child. Some were addressed to her sisters, Evelin and Jessie, whom he described as ‘delicious.’

After six years of correspondence, Carroll’s letters suddenly stopped as strains developed in his friendship with the girls and their family. The letters’ intimacy was probably charming to a child of 10, but alarming to a girl of 17.

Carroll wrote the letters from Oxford or Guildford, during the winter when he could only meet Agnes occasionally in London. They would start with ‘My darling Agnes’ or simply ‘My darling.’

In one letter he wrote: ‘I love my love with an A, because she is Affectionate: I hate her with an A, because she is Artful ... Her name is Agnes.’

He was 50 when wrote a straightforward letter to Agnes without puns and riddles that appears to recognise their age difference. In it, he thanked her for writing to him. ‘It is pleasant even to find one is not forgotten when one is getting old, and grey, and stupid: but to be lovingly remembered is very charming,’ he wrote.

He always feared Agnes would grow distant with time and this became true in 1883 when the correspondence stopped. An agonising journal entry at Eastbourne on 22 August 1882 shows Carroll had reluctantly come to the conclusion that the four Hulls … do not in the least care for my company, or for me … Such friends are hardly worth having.’

In addition to a letter in mirror writing, the lot sold by Christie’s included an autographed first edition of The Hunting of The Snark dedicated to ‘Agnes Georgina Hull from the Author Sep. 11. 1877.’

Was Agnes Hull a substitute or replacement for the attention and affection Lewis Carroll once gave to Alice Liddell in Oxford 10 or more years previously? I can only suggest that it all gets ‘Curiouser and curiouser!’

A plaque at the Folly restaurant in Oxford commemorates the boat trip when Lewis Carroll first told the Alice stories to Alice Liddell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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