One of the most popular pieces of literature to emerge from Oxford is the imaginative story of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. On my trip there, I was on the hunt to find some of the quirky inspiration…
A Quick History
Lewis Caroll, otherwise known as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, taught at Oxford University Christ Church. When the new Dean Liddell arrived in 1856, Dodgson became good friends with the family including the children, one boy and three girls – including one named Alice. Dodgson would take the kids on rowing trips on the Isis River and tell them stories along the way weaving in the city of Oxford’s people and sights.
Alice Liddell took a liking to one particular story that Dodsgon created on 4 July 1862 and after much pleading & begging, Dodgson created a handwritten, illustrated manuscript. The book was later published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 under the Lewis Carroll pen-name and illustrations by Sir John Tenniel and became very popular in Dodgson’s own lifetime.
The stories popularity continued into the later 20th century when Disney took the two classics, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865) & Through the Looking Glass (1871), and created the animated movie Alice in Wonderland (1951) creating the most well-known version of the Mad Hatter, Tweedle Dum & Dee, the Cheshire Cat and other characters. The innovation of this novel still continues with later TV & movie versions of the Alice tales.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
So, in the spirit of Alice… we will go SOMEWHERE. Following are some of the top sights to see the inspiration for Alice’s Adventure through magical gardens and the oddball characters she meets.
Charles Dodgson worked at Christ Church and not only met Alice here but found inspiration in the buildings and gardens.
Gardens: Alice and her sisters played in their own gardens that connected through a wooden door to the ChristChurch gardens. The door that she ran through to get to her garden from the house is the inspiration for the door in Alice’s adventures. As you enter Christ Church, ask an employee to see the “Alice Door” which is a small wooden door in the brick wall on the property accessed via the church. Right next to it is the Cheshire Cat tree.
Great Hall: The Christ Church Great Hall is where students and faculty eat their meals to this day. You will also recognize this as the inspiration for the Harry Potter Great Hall.
- FireDogs: As you walk around the room, look at the fire dogs at the fire place (The fire place is on the right as you enter the room in the middle of the long wall). In the book, Alice’s neck stretches when she drinks the potion. Also, these certainly have the faces of the talking door knobs.
- Stained Glass: Next, look up at the stained glass windows just to the left as you enter the hall. They have been re-created to include the Alice characters.
- Off with her head!!! – Look up at the portraits that Dodgson would have looked at as he dined in the hall daily. These include monarchs and leaders and specifically Henry VIII – who of course had 6 wives and a few lost their heads.
- Tea Party: A few times a year, Christ Church holds an afternoon tea in the Great Hall. The tea is created to reflect Christ Church’s unique association with Alice in Wonderland & also a pre-tea Behind the Scenes tour is available. Details here (Search for Alice in Wonderland)
Grandpont House was the mansion of Thomas Randall, an esteemed Oxford tailor, who often hosted tea parties. A description of Randall detailed: “All Oxford called him the Mad Hatter. He would stand at the door of his furniture shop … always with a top hat at the back of his head, which, with a well-developed nose and a somewhat receding chin, made him an easy target for the caricaturist.”
Right across from Christ Church is the site of the Old Sheep Shop which appears in Alice Through the Looking Glass. The old boutique has been open since the 1830’s and Alice Liddell bought her sweets here. It is now an Alice-themed boutique where you can find anything and everything Alice inspired.
Folly Bridge is a beautiful stone bridge in Oxford. This is where the journey began on the punting trips where Dodgson told the Liddell children a story of a bored little girl named Alice who went on an adventure. Floating on the river for five miles to the village of Godstow, Dodgson spun his tales incorporating Oxfords sights and personalities.
The Botanic Garden
The Botanic Garden in Oxford was founded in 1621 and has been a favorite spot of Oxford’s writers including Dodgson and Tolkien.
- Look for: The immaculately manicured gardens which doubled as the Queen’s croquet ground. The variety of plants & flowers are also brought to life in Alice’s adventures.
Museum of Natural History
Founded in 1860 as the center for scientific study at the University of Oxford, the Museum of Natural History now holds the University’s internationally significant collections of geological and zoological specimens. Charles Dodgson was a regular to the museum and the creatures he saw were woven into his story:
- Dodo Bird: The museum contains the world’s most complete remains of a single dodo, as well as a 17th-century painting of the bird. These displays along with Dodgson’s natural stutter (when he introduced himself, it would come out as ‘Do-do-dodgson’), is said to have inspired the character of Dodo, encountered by Alice during her visit to Wonderland.
- Flamingo: The museum has a flamingo on display which may have inspired the croquet’s used by the Queen of Hearts for her game of croquet.
- White Rabbit with Pocket Watch: The museum also has a stuffed white rabbit on display who holds a pocket watch. I’m late, I’m late…
The Bodleian Library collection, begun in 1602, contains a copy of every book printed in Great Britain and it grows by 5,000 items very week.
- The library has on display the original copy of Lewis Carroll’s books: Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass
Museum of Oxford
The Museum of Oxford tells the story of the city’s history from prehistoric to modern day. Several “Alice” memorabilia & inspiration pieces include:
- Dodgson’s fob watch: Dean Liddell was the inspiration for the tardy White Rabbit, but Lewis Carroll might have used his own fob watch for inspiration for the watch the rabbit is always checking.
- Dodgson’s Victorian bottles: The inspiration for the “Drink Me” bottle, which caused Alice to expand and then shrink.
- Alice Liddell’s Personal Effects: Alice’s pocket watch, calling card cases and silver scissors are also on display. There is a souvenir biscuit tin given to Alice and her family by Carroll, and hand-drawn place cards used at a dinner party held by Alice.
Tips & Information
- The Christ Church Mad Hatter Tea Party is only held a few times a year. Advance tickets recommended & information available here