Oxford in Wonderland

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Date: Sept. 22, 2010
From: Queen's Quarterly(Vol. 117, Issue 3.)
Publisher: Queen's Quarterly
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,663 words

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From the beginning, it was apparent that beneath the fairy tale level of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland there was a strong element of autobiography and satire of mid-Victorian satiety. It was fairly obvious that the characters and places in Wonderland had a counterpart in Oxford. All of Lewis Carroll's biographers and literary critics delve to some degree into this kind of historical "Who's Who" of the Alice books. Some of these Carroll identified himself; others he was at pains to keep secret. Nevertheless, if we walk carefully in Alice's footsteps, some fascinating new characters will step into the light. It began "all in a golden afternoon" with a real boating excursion on July 4, 1862, on the Isis, a branch of the Thames River passing though Oxford, when two young college dons rowed and picnicked with three pretty adolescent girls on their journey upriver from Folly Bridge to Godstow village.

A S Lewis Carroll always acknowledged, the real Alice" was Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford. The young college dons were the Reverend Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth. During the expedition, the three girls--Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell (aged 14, 10, and 8)--begged Dodgson to tell them a story. And so began the tale of a little girl named Alice who chased a rabbit down a hole and discovered Wonderland.


Alice Pleasance Liddell


But Alice is not the only little girl in that real boating party to appear in Wonderland . After nearly drowning, in a "Pool of Tears," Alice finds herself happily chatting with two strange talking birds as if "she had known them all her life." In fact, the birds are reincarnated Wonderland versions of her sisters. Edith has become the Eaglet, and Lorina is the Lory (or Lorikeet--a small parrot). Nor is this the last we will see of them; they reappear in the Dormouse's story of "three little sisters ... named Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie." That is, "three Liddell sisters": Lorina Charlotte (initials L.C.), Alice (anagram of Lacie), and Edith (pet name Matilda).

The two adult members of the original boating expedition also appear in the "Pool of Tears" as the Duck and the Dodo. We have direct proof of their identity in the form of a copy of Wonderland signed by Carroll and presented to his friend, the Reverend Robinson Duckworth. Carroll's inscription reads: "From the Dodo to the Duck." Duckworth became the tutor to Queen Victoria's son Prince Leopold, and was eventually appointed Canon of Westminster.


Reverend Robinson Duckworth


The transformation of the Reverend Duckworth to the Duck is obvious enough, but that of the Reverend Charles Dodgson into the Dodo is a little more obscure. The children were familiar with the famous Oxford Dodo: both the seventeenth-century Jan Savery painting and the last surviving stuffed Dodo in the Ashmolean Museum. However, the real reason for Dodgson becoming a Dodo was to be found in a private self-mocking joke with the children who had often observed the stuttering author as he nervously introduced himself as "Mr DoDo-Dodgson."


Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll)


T hese Wonderland characters were mostly harmless parodies of a private nature that might have been fabricated by the author for any ordinary child. But, Alice Liddell was no ordinary child, and Oxford was at the very core of Victorian Britain's academic, ecclesiastic, and political life. Most of the other characters in Wonderland are satirical caricatures of some of the most significant figures of Victorian society. And as the daughter of the most influential educator of the age, Alice Liddell knew nearly all of them personally.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a time capsule of life in mid-nineteenth-century Oxford, and this was a critical era in the university's evolution. Liberal reforms swept away many aspects of medieval privilege and patronage, and a new system was introduced by which merit was measured in terms of academic achievement alone.

It was Alice Liddell's father, the Dean of Christ Church College, who was the chief architect of these sweeping reforms. More than anyone, Dean Liddell was responsible for separating the powers of church and state and clearing the way for modern secular universities. In the midst of all this was Charles Dodgson, a junior mathematics don. His academic superior was the liberal Dean Liddell. His ecclesiastic superior was Samuel Wilberforce, the conservative Bishop of Oxford and a ferocious opponent of the program of reform.

Dodgson-Carroll was a reactionary conservative who persistently conspired against virtually every one of the liberal progressive acts initiated by Dean Liddell. Although consistently on the wrong side of history, through Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Carroll has his readers unwittingly engaged in a satire of most of the major social and political issues of his time.

One of the historic turning points in human intellectual history in this new era took place a few hundred yards from Lewis Carroll's residence. This was the famous 1860 Oxford Darwinian Debate in which the bombastic anti-Evolutionist Wilberforce was verbally eviscerated by the rational pro-Evolutionary Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as "Darwin's Bulldog," Huxley's victory became emblematic of the triumph of progressive rational science.

In Wonderland , Carroll's satire of the Darwin debate takes place in the strange smoke-filled Kitchen of the Ugly Duchess. The Oxford counterpart of the Duchess' Kitchen is one of the grand sites of the university: Cardinal Wolsey's Great Kitchen. Built during the reign of Henry VIII, Oxford's Great Kitchen has a massive hearth for roasting entire pigs and, like the Duchess' Kitchen, was frequently filled with smoke.

The Great Kitchen was also the one part of the university that was directly under the authority of the Bishop of Oxford. Samuel Wilberforce, the son of the anti-slavery movement's "Great Emancipator" William Wilberforce, was known to parliamentarians and political pundits as "Soapy Sam" because of his brash and illogical debating style. He was the perfect model for the logic-chopping, moralizing, and argumentative Ugly Duchess.

Ugly Duchess

Bishop of Oxford

Samuel Wilberforce


In this fantastic "Kitchen of Creation," one can imagine these insane cooks mixing up a mad biological soup. Evolution is gone berserk. Uniformed fish and frog footmen seem to have just stepped out of the primordial ooze. A constantly shape-shifting baby appears to demonstrate "survival of the fittest" by preferring beatings to affection. Strangest of all, Alice's attempt to nurse this child results in a strange backward form of evolution: from a boy into a pig.

This surreal idea of a boy evolving into a pig is a typical Carrollian conundrum. Carroll is playing a word game. It was a game of verbal evolution which he himself invented (and later published in Vanity Fair ) entitled "Doublets." In this game two words of the same length are chosen, and the player must make one word evolve into another by means of "missing-link words" created by changing a single letter to form each new link-word.

The example he gave in Vanity Fair was to change "Head into Tail": HEAD-heal-teal-tell-tall-TAIL. Amongst other examples, he suggests: "evolve Man from Ape"; and "Fish into Bird." In Wonderland , the verbal evolution of "Boy into Pig" is obvious enough: BOY-bog-big-PIG. But Carroll also gives the reader another obscure hint when the Duchess chants a spell over the child which ends in "WOW! WOW! WOW!" This is a cryptic phonetic pun on the word "Doublets": "WOW!" spelled out aloud is: "Double-You Oh Double-You!"

The Cook is the famous natural scientist Sir Richard Owen, who served as the bishop's adviser. It was Owen who "cooked up" the arguments against Huxley and Darwin for Wilberforce. Unfortunately, much to Owen's irritation, the bishop entirely failed to comprehend some of his most basic theories.

Famous as the anatomist who coined the word "dinosaur," Owen was an influential but extremely disagreeable character. In Darwin, Owen and Wilberforce had a common enemy; however, Owen was no friend of the bishop, and basically disputed with Darwin over the recipe of the primal soup.


Sir Richard Owen


A FTER leaving the Duchess' Kitchen, Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat. Carroll's game of Doublets goes some way to explaining the Cheshire Cat's ability to vanish bit by bit from "Tail to Head." However, it does not explain the ancient English riddle of the grin: "to grin like a Cheshire Cat" was an expression that pre-dated Carroll by at least a century.

Nor does it help with the question of his identity. The Cheshire Cat is the smiling Sphinx of Wonderland whose identity has long been a mystery. But cats at Oxford are not hard to find. The Christ Church College coat of arms is adorned with four guardian cats' heads. As there are Christ Church colleges at both Cambridge and Oxford, in order to differentiate one from the other, Oxford uses the abbreviation Ch. Ch. Consequently, Carroll and his colleagues commonly referred to themselves as Ch. Ch. Men; while the canons became known as the Ch. Ch. Cats--the watchful guardians of the university.

It is not a huge leap from "Ch. Ch. Cat" to "Cheshire Cat," but this doesn't suggest which canon is the Cheshire Cat. However, Alice supplies us with a clue by rather formally addressing the cat as "Cheshire-Puss." Why the capital on Puss? Why "Puss" at all? Only one Ch. Ch. Canon "would like the name" as Alice suggests.

Cheshire Cat

Canon Edward Bouverie Pusey


The Cheshire Cat was the Reverend Dr Edward Bouverie Pusey, Regius Professor of Hebrew and Lewis Carroll's mentor. Canon Pusey was the ecclesiastical and political focus of ultra-conservatism at Oxford. And just as the Cheshire Cat was the Duchess' Cat, so Pusey was under the authority of Oxford's Duchess, Bishop Wilberforce. As a friend of Carroll's High Church father, Canon Pusey also granted--through the old system of privilege and patronage--the young Carroll-Dodgson entry into Christ Church.

In one of his anonymously published satires, wherein people take on geometric identities, Carroll "investigates the locus of EBP [Edward Bouverie Pusey]: this was found to be a species of Catenary, called a Patristic Catenary." Today the term Patristic Catenary (meaning "chain of the fathers" of the church) is obscure, but it was not so in Carroll's time. Canon Pusey was famously the greatest authority on the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and widely celebrated as the ultimate Patristic Catenary.

Even more revealingly, in geometry, a catenary is a curve made by a chain suspended between two points at different levels, such as one finds in a suspension or catenary bridge. With this clue, Carroll has not only provided us with proof of the identity of Wonderland's Cheshire Cat, but the shape of a catenary is almost perfectly described by Alice as "a grin without a cat!"

And finally, with this, Carroll gives us a mathematician's solution to the ancient unsolved riddle hidden behind the Cheshire Cat's grin.

"RIDDLE: What kind of cat can grin? "

"ANSWER: A Catenary ."

J UST as Darwinian evolution was the target of Carroll s satire in the Duchess' Kitchen, it was the rise of the Christian Socialist Movement that was parodied at the table of the Mad Tea Party. Most Christian Socialists were authors of socially conscious novels and Christian tracts, and belonged to a Cambridge society known as the "Apostles."

As a caring Christian, Lewis Carroll had some sympathy for their views, but as a conservative he found their impassioned public debates quite hare-brained and rather dangerous to the stability of the nation. In making them participants of a Mad Tea Party, Carroll aligns them with the disastrous consequences (as Carroll saw it) of the Boston Tea Party.

In a phonetic pun he frequently used, Carroll argued this was an M.T. (Mad Tea) Party of empty (M.T.) promises. When Alice is offered wine, she is told there is none and comes to understand that this is a party without sub stance or 'spirit": a further allusion to the Christian Socialists, who were all avowed teetotalers; and thus literally a party of tea drinkers.

Mad Hatter

Reverend Charles Kingsley


The Mad Hatter is Charles Kingsley. The most famous of the Christian Socialists, Kingsley was the author of numerous popular socially conscious novels. His vivid portrayal of working class squalor in the clothing trade in novels like Alton Locke awakened the middle classes to the tragic human consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

Among these victims of the clothing trade were the hatters. Widespread use of mercury in the shaping of hats resulted in dementia, which often manifested itself in uncontrollable trembling and raving speech patterns like those of Wonderland's Mad Hatter. Although "Mad as a Hatter" was a common expression long before Carroll's time, one can easily appreciate why the ultra-conservative Carroll would wish to portray the excitable socialist Kingsley as a ranting and raving Mad Hatter.

Kingsley was one of the few clergymen to introduce evolutionary ideas into his novels, and in his perennial children's classic The Waterbabies --read by Carroll before writing Wonderland --one illustration is of Sir Richard Owen (Wonderland's Cook) examining a "Waterbaby" in a test tube alongside his opponent Thomas Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog."

March Hare

Reverend Julius Charles Hare


The Tea Party's March Hare is Julius Hare, a leading Christian Socialist theological writer. Hare was a prolific author, who - like the March Hare--was so painfully fond of "hairsplitting" digressions that he found it necessary to append a 200-page footnote to one of his publications. It appears that Carroll may have been "splitting heirs" in this characterization: Julius had an equally eccentric Christian Socialist brother, Augustus William Hare, and a nephew, Augustus Cuthbert Hare, an exact contemporary of Carroll's at Oxford.


Reverend Frederick Denison Maurice


The Dormouse--as the third member of the Mad Tea Party--was also a famous Christian Socialist: John Frederick Denison Maurice, who eventually became the Cambridge Professor of Moral Philosophy. Through his thoughtful sermons and his writing, Maurice became an immensely respected Christian thinker, and founder of both the Apostles and (with Kingsley) the Christian Socialists.

Maurice's "other worldly" and mild-tempered nature seems well-reflected in his portrayal as narcoleptic Dormouse. The animal's sleepiness is explained by the fact that the Dormouse is a nocturnal rodent whose name is derived from the French dormier : and thus is literally a "sleeping mouse."

Maurice believed that theology should be a source of unity, not division, but like Wonderland's Dormouse stuffed into the tea pot, he found himself in hot water when his superiors charged him with heresy for his refusal to accept the church doctrine of Eternal Damnation.

A FTER the Mad Tea Party, Alice enters Wonderland's Royal Garden and the Queen's Croquet Ground. Everyone and everything behaves strangely here, but somehow they also seem familiar. This is because the Royal Gardens are Oxford University's Gardens of Academe, and the above-ground counterpart of the Queen's Croquet Ground is the croquet lawn of Alice's own home at the Deanery of Christ Church College.

It was in the Deanery Garden while gazing out a window in the college library that Carroll first caught sight of Alice and her sisters playing croquet. And it was in that garden that he first approached them, and eventually arranged to photograph Alice and her two sisters wearing their best summer dresses and holding croquet mallets.

King of Hearts

Alice's Father,

Dean Henry George Liddell


The King and Queen of Hearts are, without doubt, Alice's parents: Henry George Liddell and Lorina Hannah Liddell. As Dean of Christ Church, Henry George Liddell was the confidant of both Prime Ministers Disraeli and Gladstone. He was also on intimate terms with Queen Victoria and her family: he had been chaplain to both Albert, the Prince Consort, and Edward, the Prince of Wales.

The brother of an earl, Dean Liddell was also one of the foremost Greek scholars of his day, and co-author of the authoritative Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon . Furthermore, architecturally he transformed Oxford by carrying out the most ambitious building program in its history. Although sometimes intimidating and aristocratic in his bearing, he was noted for his kindly nature. Like the King of Hearts, he was generally seen as well-meaning but--like many academics--somewhat vague as an administrator.

Queen of Hearts

Alice's Mother, Lorina Hannah Liddel


The Queen of Hearts was obviously Alice's mother, Lorina Hannah Liddell. Mrs Liddell was very beautiful when young. However, as she gave birth to ten children and grew older, she became stouter and temperamentally rather overbearing. The Deanery hosted parties for visiting prime ministers, archbishops, aristocrats, and royalty.

Consequently, like Wonderland's royal family under the authority of the Queen, the Liddells were very much seen as "Oxford's royal family," firmly under the authority of Mrs Liddell.

Certainly, Lewis Carroll was not the first to observe how Mrs Liddell often "held court" at the Deanery. There was a well-known jingle-not of Carroll's composition--that made its rounds at Oxford:

I am the Dean and this is Mrs

     She plays the first, and I the second fiddle.

     She is the Broad; I am the High:

     And we are the University.


White Rabbit

Dr Henry Wentworth Acland


Within the Royal Court, Alice discovers her guide into Wonderland, the White Rabbit, is also the Royal Herald. The White Rabbit is undoubtedly Alice Liddell's family physician, Dr Henry Wentworth Acland. Dr Acland was Oxford's Regius Professor of Medicine. Like the White Rabbit, Dr Acland seemed to know everybody at all levels of society. He had been the personal physician of Alice, the Dean and Mrs Liddell (King and Queen of Hearts), the Bishop of Oxford (the Ugly Duchess), and--at one time--Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Yet, he also went on his rounds treating ordinary citizens and the poor, and was--like the White Rabbit--often seen checking his pocket watch and adjusting his spectacles, before rushing off to his next appointment.

Dr Acland was also a noted anatomist and a social reformer who in the wake of numerous epidemics in Oxford developed an obsession with public sanitation and underground sewage systems. Consequently, like the White Rabbit, Dr Acland was frequently seen literally climbing down into holes in the ground on his regular inspection of drainage tunnels. One couldn't hope for a better model for Wonderland's underground guide.

T HE heraldic beasts of the Royal Gardens re the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. As guardians of the "Gardens of Academe," they are also parodies of a pair of monstrous schoolmasters. One of these, the Mock Turtle, is a non-existent creature, the product of the absurd logic-chopping: if turtle soup is made from turtles, then mock turtle soup must be made from mock turtles. Except mock turtle soup is actually made with veal, which explains Tenniel's illustration of the Mock Turtle with a calf's head, hooves, and tail.

Mock Turtle

Reverend Henry Parry Liddon


So far as the Mock Turtle's identity, there is no doubt. On several occasions Carroll revealed the Mock Turtle as his friend and colleague the Reverend Henry Parry Liddon. Here, Carroll gives us another example of his addiction to appallingly bad puns: a turtle is an animal with a "Lid-On." For twenty years Liddon was the canon of St Paul's Cathedral where, by means of his charismatic and emotive oration, he had a popular following, and frequently moved his parishioners to tears. By comparison, in Wonderland the Mock Turtle only seems capable of moving himself to tears. One cannot help but think that it amused Carroll to portray Liddon the great orator as a "literary trope"; that is, a creature that only exists as a figure of speech.


John Ruskin


The Gryphon is equally a non-existent beast: an emblematic being who exists only in literature and heraldry. The Gryphon is undoubtedly John Ruskin, the greatest critic and philosopher of art history of his time. The author of The Stones of Venice , he became the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford and wrote an extensive historical analysis of the portrayal of gryphons in art, sculpture, and architecture.

For a time, Ruskin was Alice Liddell's drawing teacher and, as such, he also served as the model for Wonderland's Old Conger Eel who taught "wrealing and writhing" (reading and writing) and "drawling, stretching and fainting in coils" (drawing, sketching and painting in oils). Like Carroll, Ruskin also had an obsession with adolescent girls, and acknowledged that he too had once been an admirer of the teenage Alice. Curiously, Ruskin's book on the education of young girls is entitled In Queen's Garden .

Everything these strange schoolmasters teach is the reverse of what is taught in terrestrial schools. The Mock Turtle teaches lessons that lessen and lessen, until they entirely vanish. This is perhaps because the "Mock Turtle's Story" is--again the same old pun--an M.T. (empty) Story, devoid of content. And with the Gryphon, we have a monster schoolmaster who takes Ruskin's great theme of "Beautification" and transforms it into the gospel of "Uglification."

Empty and ugly were indeed, in the view of the reactionary conservative Lewis Carroll, the result of the liberalizing changes being forced on the ancient and hallowed institutions of learning at Oxford.

A LICE'S last stop in Wonderland is back in a Royal Court which has been transformed into a judicial court presided over by the King and Queen of Hearts. The trial is an enactment of the nursery rhyme about the "Knave of Hearts who stole some tarts, / All on a summer's day."

However, it is not until one understands that the Knave of Hearts is Lewis Carroll that one begins to understand the nature and savagery of this satire. In fact, the Wonderland trial relates to a real-life "trial of the heart," which proved to be a pivotal moment in Lewis Carroll's life, and one for which he became forever embittered.

But that, as Carroll would say, is a story for another time.

Knave of Hearts

Lewis Carroll


DAVID DAY is a Canadian author who has written over 40 books of poetry, ecology, history, fantasy, mythology, and fiction. His work for adults and children has been published worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Day, David (Canadian writer). "Oxford in Wonderland." Queen's Quarterly, vol. 117, no. 3, 2010, p. 403+. Gale Academic Onefile, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FA242180566%2FAONE%3Fu%3Dntu%26sid%3DAONE%26xid%3D9f518d8b. Accessed 22 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A242180566