The story of Alice in Wonderland was inspired by many things out of Charles Dodgson’s environment: the author of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ referred to people and places he knew in his books. On this page you can read about them.
The White Rabbit
Dean Liddell, Alice’s father, could very well have been the White Rabbit, for the Dean was always running late too.
When Alice was a child, there was no west entrance to the Cathedral and the Dean would normally have had to leave the Deanery, walk along Tom Quad, around the Cloisters and into the Cathedral through the south door. Therefore he was notorious for being late for services.
The present Cathedral Garden then belonged to one of the Cannons who subsequently gave permission to the Dean to use the door as a short cut to the Cathedral.
The rabbit hole
It is said that the ‘Rabbit Hole’ can be found in the dining hall in Christ Church, Oxford.
Alice’s father would have dined at the High Table with other senior members of the college. After dinner the senior members did not drop down amongst the undergraduates but went through a panelled door to the left of the spot where Liddell’s portrait is now hanging. Behind this door is a very narrow spiral staircase which descends to the senior common room, then to a corridor which emerges in Tom Quad. Dean Liddell would use the staircase and appear in Tom Quad on his way home to the Deanery. So it is said that it was the inspiration for the Rabbit Hole.
However, as the spiral staircase behind the High Table in Hall was built in 1906, this claim can be doubted.
Off with his head!
At the time Carroll wrote “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, state-sanctioned executions were a subject of public controversy and heated debate in England. The Queen of Heart’s impulsive and absurd calls for beheadings may therefore be a way of ridiculing this longstanding practice of executions, and represent Carroll’s opinion on the matter.
(source: Abate, Michelle Ann: “Off with Their Heads!: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Anti-Gallows Movement”. Presentation as part of the session “The Endurance of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ at 150” during the 2015 Modern Language Association conference, Vancouver, 8-11 January 2015)
The door to Wonderland
This door must have been the little door behind the curtain, in the hallway. The garden on the photographs is called the Cathedral Garden, and is in fact ‘Wonderland’. Behind that door lies the Dean’s Garden in which the Liddell sisters often played.
The Cathedral Garden was a garden they were not allowed to enter, but which they could see from the window of their nursery. This was a view familiar to Dodgson from the period of time that he spent playing with the children in the nursery and hence became the forbidden garden to Alice, and used by Dodgson as ‘Wonderland’.
On the far side of the Dean’s garden is the rear of the library. It was from the windows of this library that Dodgson, then in his post of Sub-librarian, was able to look down into the garden and first saw Alice playing with her brother and sisters. Because of his interest in photography he later approached the Dean’s wife and obtained permission to photograph the children.
The flower border along the Deanery Wall was planted with plants mentioned in ‘Through the Looking Glass’.
Why the White Rabbit is always late
In the Tom Tower hangs the bell called Great Tom. At five past nine every night the bell strikes one hundred and one times, which represents the original number of Undergraduates at the college. On the last strike all the Junior members were expected to be back in college.
The reason for ringing at five past nine is that Oxford is five minutes west of Greenwich. Therefore, five past nine (Greenwich Time) is in fact nine o’clock in Oxford time.
Time was only standardized in Britain with the coming of the railways and the need for reliable time tables. Christ Church obviously decided that change was a bad thing and that they would retain to the old Oxford time. Still to this day the services times in the Cathedral are five minutes past the hour and the Formal Hall is held at 7.20 whereas all the other colleges dine at 7.15.
Even as a child Dodgson had a great interest in the railways and invented railway games using the timetables. Perhaps that is why the White Rabbit was always running late; he was a Christ Church White Rabbit.
At the end of the second chapter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland it says: “There was a Duck, and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet”. This is a reference to the author, his friend, and Alice’s sisters: all passengers who were with Alice in the boat when the story was first told to her. Lorina is the Lorry and Edith the Eaglet. The Duck is Canon Robinson Duckworth. The Dodo was Charles Dodgson, who had a slight stutter, which made him sometimes give his name as ‘Do-do-Dodgson’.
The proof that these last two nicknames were actually used, comes from Dodgson’s inscription in a 1886 facsimile edition of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”, which he dedicated to Robinson Duckworth. It read: “From the Dodo to the Duck”.
The queer-looking party of animals
“They were indeed a queer-looking party that assembled on the bank”
The individuals in this party represent the participants in an episode entered in Carroll’s diary on June 17, 1862. Carroll took his sisters, Fanny and Elizabeth, and his Aunt Lucy Lutwidge (the ‘other curious creatures’) on a boating expedition, along with Reverend Duckworth and the three Liddell girls.
This is what Carroll wrote in his diary:
“June 17 (Tu). Expedition to Nuneham. Duckworth (of Trinity) and Ina, Alice and Edith came with us. We set out about 12.30 and got to Nuneham about 2: dined there, then walked in the park and set off for home about 4.30. About a mile above Nuneham heavy rain came on, and after bearing it a short time I settled that we had better leave the boat and walk: three miles of this drenched us all pretty well. I went on first with the children, as they could walk much faster than Elizabeth, and took them to the only house I knew in Sandford, Mrs. Broughton’s, where Ranken lodges. I left them with her to get their clothes dried, and went off to find a vehicle, but none was to be had there, so on the others arriving, Duckworth and I walked on to Iffley, whence we sent them a fly.”
Within the original manuscript appear many more details relating to this experience: the Dodo takes Alice, the Lorry, Eaglet and Duck to a house where they can dry instead of doing a caucusrace. Carroll later deleted it because he thought it would have little interest to anyone outside the circle of the individuals that were involved. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.44)
The Mouse’s tale
When the Mouse tells the driest thing he knows, he is quoting from Havilland Chepmell’s “Short Course of History”, 1862, pages 143-144. Chepmell’s book was one of the lesson books studied by the Liddell children. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.46)
The caucus race
In England the term ‘caucus’ referred to a system of highly disciplined party organization by committees. It was often used as an abusive term for the organization of an opposing party. With the term ‘causus race’ Carroll may have poked fun at the committees, as committee members generally did a lot of running around in circles while they were getting nowhere.
The Lory and the Crab, and the Tweedle’s chapter
There seem to be several parallels between the book “Holiday House” by Catherine Sinclair (1839) and the Alice stories. In The Knight Letter no.78, Selwyn Goodacre mentions amongst others the following similarities:
“I was in the world long before you were born, and must know best: so hold your tongue.”
(said Mrs. Crabtree in Holiday House)
“Indeed, she had quite a long argument with the Lory, who at last turned sulky, and would only say, “I am older than you, and must know better.”
“…an old Crab took the opportunity of saying to her daughter, ‘Ah, my dear! Let this be a lesson never to lose your temper!’
‘Hold your tongue, Ma!’ said the young Crab, a little snappishly.”
(AAIW, chapter 3)
“…I shall say not another word about
THE PRODIGIOUS CAKE”
(In Holiday House, chapters II, III, IV, V, VI and VII all end with a repeat of the chapter title)
“…feeling sure that they must be
TWEEDLEDUM AND TWEEDLEDEE”
(The ending of chapter III of TTLG)
Alice’s long neck
In ‘Alice in Wonderland’, eating something causes Alice’s neck to stretch. This fireplace in the Hall (the largest college dining hall in Oxford) could very well have been the inspiration for this. Why? Just take a good look at the ‘firedogs’…
The Fish footman
In chapter 6 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (‘Pig and Pepper’), Alice meets a talking fish. It is believed that this idea originated from an attraction Alice Liddell saw when she was at a fair.
The Cheshire Cat tree
This is said to be the tree in which the Cheshire Cat was seated. It is a Horse Chestnut tree. It grows in the Dean’s Garden of Christ Church, Oxford.
“To grin like a Cheshire Cat” was a common phrase in Carroll’s day. Its origin is not known. However, it could have originated from a sign painter in Cheshire, who painted grinning lions on the sign-boards of inns in the area.
Another explanation could be that at one time, Cheshire cheeses were molded in the shape of a grinning cat. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.83)
Also, when you take a good look at the ‘Alice Window’ in Christ Church, Oxford, you can see 3 grinning animals at the top of the Liddell’s family arms. Perhaps this is what inspired Dodgson.
Finally, the Cheshire Cat might be inspired by a carving in St. Peter’s Church, in Croft-on-Tees, where Lewis Carroll’s father was rector. It is a sedilia – a seat for the clergy built into the wall – at one end of which is a carved stone face of a cat or lion. Seen from a pew it has a wide smile. But if you stand up, the grin seems to disappear, just as it eventually does in “Alice in Wonderland”. (discovery by Joel Birenbaum)
Mad as a Hatter / Mad as a March Hare
The phrases ‘mad as a hatter’ and ‘mad as a march hare’ were also common in Carroll’s time.
‘Mad as a hare’ alludes to the crazy capers of the male hare during March, its rutting season.
‘Mad as a hatter’ probably owes its origin to the fact that hatters actually did go mad, because the mercury they used sometimes gave them mercury poisoning.
(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.90)
However, there’s another theory about the origin of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’:
[…] ” here’s the entry for ”‘Mad as a Hatter’ refers to madness or hatters” in the 1980 A Dictionary of Common Fallacies:
Lewis Carroll with his penchant for linguistic games presumably knew perfectly well that his “Mad Hatter’ meant ‘a venomous adder’, but since his readers may have been misled by Tenniel’s drawings, it should be pointed out that ‘mad’ meant ‘venomous’ and ‘hatter’ is a corruption of ‘adder’, or viper, so that the phrase ‘mad as an atter’ originally meant ‘as venomous as a viper’.
Here’s a much older citation of the same strip from a 1901 book:
“In the Anglo-Saxon the word ‘mad’ was used as a synonym for violent, furious, angry, or venomous. In some parts of England and in the United States particularly, it is still used in this sense. ‘Atter’ was the Anglo-Saxon name for an adder, or viper. The proverbial saying has therefore probably no reference to hat-makers, but merely means ‘as venomous as an adder.’ The Germans call the viper ‘Natter.'” – Edwards’s Words, Facts, and Phrases.
In simpler terms, “mad as a hatter” was a play on words (with “adder” becoming “hatter”). Though the mercury/hatters/crazy explanation appears to fit the term, it fits only retrospectively — at the time Carroll coined the phrase, “mad” meant “venomous,” not “insane.” “
Victorian children apparently actually had pet dormice, and kept them in old teapots filled with grass or hay. The Dormouse from Alice in Wonderland may have been modelled after Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s pet wombat, which had a habit of sleeping on the table. Carroll knew the Rossetti’s and occasionally visited them. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.95)
The Mad Tea Party
In Victorian times, asylums opened their doors for ‘therapeutic entertainment’: events would be organized, including tea parties, that were open to visitors. It was thought to help with the re-socialisation of the patients, and it was a form of entertainent for the visitors. So the mad tea party scene may actually refer to a tea party with asylum clients!
Carroll must have been aware of this practice, especially because his uncle Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge was a Commissioner for the Commission in Lunacy, a state-supervised body for the inspection of lunatic asylums in Britain and Ireland. He appears to have visited such an asylum at least once.
As there were straw beds in some asylums, this may also explain the practice of drawing people with straw in on their heads (in this case, the March Hare’s head) to signify them being mad.
(sources: Kohlt, Franziska. “The Stupidest Tea-Party in All My Life’: Lewis Carroll and Victorian Psychiatric Practice“, 26 April 2016. And: Kohlt, Franziska. “Alice in the asylum: Wonderland and the real mad tea parties of the Victorians“, 31 May 2016)
The treacle well
At the tea party, the Dormouse mentions a treacle well. The idea of the treacle well originated from of the legend of St. Frideswide, a local princess. In an informative paper I received during my visit to Oxford, it said:
“This story of the well sounds like a piece of complete nonsense on the part of Dodgson, however it is, of course, complete logical, for one must always remember that when the story of Alice was first told, Dodgson was telling the story to a 10 year old girl. In order to keep her attention he had to talk about things that she knew and understood, as in the case of the treacle well.
The Frideswide Window tells the story of St. Frideswide and her flight from Prince Algar. […] Alice Liddell witnessed both the making and the installation of the window and was also familiar with the story of St. Frideswide. […]
The right hand of the window depicts the scene of Frideswide together with old women drawing water from a well, this water was then used by Frideswide to cure illness. This well still exists today (at St. Margaret’s Church, Binsey) and has always been known as a treacle well. The word treacle is an Anglo-Saxon word which means ‘cure all’ and this explains why the sisters at the bottom of the well were very unwell – had they been well then they would have had no need to go there in the first place.
It is known that Dodgson and Alice had visited the well several times and there is little doubt that it was the inspiration for the story told by the Dormouse.”
The sisters in the well: Elsie, Lacie and Tillie
The names of the three little sisters in the Treacle Well (Elsie Lacie and Tillie) also refer to the names of the three Liddell sisters: Elsie originated from the initials of Lorina Charlotte, Lacie is a transformation of Alice, and Tillie was short for Matilda, a name given to Edith by her sisters. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p. 44 and 100)
There are even more references to them: see Cathy Dean’s text ‘The Duck and the Dodo: References in the Alice books to friends and family’.
The Duchess’s moral
The moral of the Duchess, “Take care of the sense and the sound will take care of themselves”, is an adaptation of an old English proverb; “Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves”.
“It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!” comes from another common phrase in Carroll’s time; “As large as life and quite as natural”. Apparently Carroll was the first to substitute ‘twice’ for ‘quite’, and this is now the usual phrasing in both England and the U.S. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.121 and 287)
Animal, vegetable or mineral?
When Alice meets the Duchess, the Duchess tells her:
“Flamingo’s and mustard both bite.”
“Only mustard isn’t a bird. […] It’s a mineral, I think.”
In Through the Looking Glass, the Lion asks Alice:
“Are you animal — vegetable — or mineral?”
“Animal, vegetable, mineral” was a popular Victorian parlor game. Players tried to guess what someone was thinking of. The first questions asked were traditionally: ‘Is it animal? Is it vegetable? Is it mineral?’.
(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice – the definitive edition, 2001)
The Mock Turtle
The Mock Turtle’s weeping may be based on the fact that marine turtles often appear to weep: it is actually a way of getting rid of the salt in the water. Lewis Carroll had an interest in zoology and was probably aware of this phenomenon.
French, music and washing – extra
When the Mock Turtle talks about the courses he took, he mentions “French, music and washing – extra”. This phrase often appeared at boarding school bills, meaning that there was an extra charge for French and music, and for having one’s laundry done by the school. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.128)
The Conger Eel
The Conger Eel that came to teach ‘Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils’ is a reference to the art critic John Ruskin. He visited the Liddell family on a weekly basis, to teach the children drawing, sketching, and painting in oils. (source: Martin Gardner, “The Annotated Alice – 150th centenary anniversary edition”, p. 115)
The date of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
When you read closely, you can discover the date on which ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ took place. The date of the book is 4 May; Alice Liddell’s birthday.
We know that because of Alice’s remarks in chapters 6 and 7:
`the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad–at least not so mad as it was in March.’
`What day of the month is it?’ he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.
Alice considered a little, and then said `The fourth.’
Alice Liddell was born in 1852, so she was ten in 1862 when the story was told, but her age in the story probably is seven. We know that because Through the Looking Glass appears to take place a half year later (see later on this page) and she’s ‘exactly seven and one half years old’ in that book. The photograph which Carroll pasted at the end of the manuscript was also taken when she was seven. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998)
Mathematics in the story
As Charles Dodgson was a mathematics professor, he incorporated some mathematical puzzles and jokes into the story.
When Alice is in the hallway, trying to figure out her identity, she tries to recite the multiplication table:
4 x 5 = 12
4 x 6 = 13
4 x 7 =…
She notices it fails and comments that she’ll “never get to twenty at that rate”.
This could refer to the fact that multiplication tables traditionally stop with the twelves, so if you continue the progression until 4 x 12, you’ll only get to 19. (source: Martin Gardner, “The Annotated Alice”)
A more complex theory, is that Alice’s calculations are actually valid when you use a number system with a base of respectively 18, 21, 24, and so on (always incrementing the base with 3):
4 x 5 = 12 (base of 18)
4 x 6 = 13 (base of 21)
4 x 7 = 14 (base of 24)
4 x 8 = 15 (base of 27)
4 x 9 = 16 (base of 30)
4 x 10 = 17 (base of 33)
4 x 11 = 18 (base of 36)
4 x 12 = 19 (base of 39)
However, then the system breaks down. In a number system with a base of 42, 4 x 13 is not 20. Therefore, Alice will indeed never get to twenty this way. (source: A.L. Taylor, “The White Knight”)
It is also interesting to note that this happens when the base is 42, as there are several references to the number 42 in the Alice books. For example, it is the number of ‘the oldest rule in the book’, according to the King of Hearts. Also, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” contains 42 illustrations.
The Red Queen
The governess of the Liddell sisters, Miss Prickett, was nicknamed “Pricks” and could therefore be the prototype of the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass (‘one of the thorny kind’).
Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday
`You couldn’t have it if you did want it,’ the Queen said. `The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day.’
`It must come sometimes to “jam do-day,”‘ Alice objected.
`No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. `It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.’
In this passage, Carroll may be playing with the Latin word ‘iam’. The letters i and j are interchangeable in classic Latin. ‘Iam’ means now. This word is used in the past and future tense, but in the present tense the word for ‘now’ is ‘nunc’. So because you can never use ‘iam’ in the present, you’ll never have ‘jam to-day’!
It may also have to do with a second definition of the word ‘jam’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘jam’ does not only refer to the fruit spread for bread, but can also mean someting more figuratively: ‘something good or sweet, esp. with allusion to the use of sweets to hide the disagreeable taste of medicine … something pleasant promised or expected for the future, esp. something that one never receives’.
(source: How little girls are like serpents, or, food and power in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books by Katja Jylkka)
The railway carriage
Apparently, the passage about Alice travelling by railway carriage used to contain an old lady. Carroll dropped her from the chapter after he received a letter from Tenniel on June 1, 1870, in which he made the following suggestion:
“I think that when the jump occurs in the railway scene you might very well make Alice lay hold of the goat’s beard as being the object nearest to her hand – instead of the old lady’s hair. The jerk would actually throw them together.
(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.221)
In Looking Glass world Alice encounters a snap-dragon-fly, who’s body is made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy. He makes his nest in a Christmas box.
This may seem a strange description, but it refers to ‘snapdragon’; a parlour game played at Christmas time in which children would try to ‘snatch raisins out of a dish of burning brandy and eat them while still alight’.
(source: How little girls are like serpents, or, food and power in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books by Katja Jylkka)
Bread and butter
According to the American Edwin Marsden, some children are being taught to wisper ‘bread and butter, bread and butter’ whenever being circled by a wasp, bee, or other insect, to prevent getting stung. If this was also a customary in Victorian England, it may explain why the White Queen whispers this phrase when the is being scared by the monstrous crow.
‘Wool and Water’
The chapter ‘Wool and Water’, in which a shop managed by a sheep suddenly changes into a river, may be inspired by the occasional flooding of Oxford. In December 1852, while Carroll was an Oxford undergraduate, there was a particularly severe flood. According to the London Illustrated News, there were numerous drowned carcasses, including those of sheep. Also there is talk about the discomfort of Christ Church men whose ground-floor rooms were towards the meadows. The shop actually existed (and still does) and is located directly across Christ Church, so if the water reached until there, the shop would likely also have been flooded. (source: O’Connor, Michael. “All in the golden afternoon – the origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, White Stone Publishing – The Lewis Carroll Society, 2012)
The eggs from the Old Sheep Shop
The Sheep in Through the Looking Glass tells Alice that if she buys two eggs, she has to eat them both. Alice decides to buy only one, for ‘they mightn’t be at all nice’. Undergraduates at Christ Church, in Carroll’s day, insisted that if you ordered one boiled egg for breakfast you usually received two, one good and one bad.(source: The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, Vol.1, p.176)
The Anglo-Saxon messengers
The messengers of the White King in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Haigha and Hatta, are the Mad Hatter and the March Hare from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The Anglo-Saxon name ‘Haigha’ is pronounced as “Hayor”, which makes it sound like ‘hare’.
In his account of the Kings Messengers’ approach (Through the Looking Glass), Carroll was poking fun at the very earnest Anglo-Saxon scholarship practiced at Oxford in his day, and both his and Tenniel’s renderings of the Messengers’ costume and ‘attitudes’ were almost certainly taken from one of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in Oxford’s Bodleian Library; the Caedmon Manuscript of the Junian codex.
Many of the words in ‘Jabberwocky’ are also related to Anglo-Saxon ones.
(source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.279)
The White Knight
The White Knight probably represents Dodgson himself. This can be derived from the description (‘shaggy hair’, ‘gentle face and large mild eyes’), his many inventions, and his melancholy song. Also, on the underside of a hand-drawn game board Carroll once wrote: “Olive Butler, from the White Knight”, thereby identifying himself as the Knight (source: Jeffrey Stern, “Carroll Identifies Himself at Last”, Jabberwocky, Summer/Autumn 1990).
Therefore, when the White Knight says good-bye to Alice, who is going to become a Queen, Dodgson might be saying good-bye to Alice who is going to become a grown woman.
The leg of mutton
Carroll often parodied Victorian etiquette. An example is the scene in which Alice is being introduced to the Leg of Mutton:
“You look a little shy. Let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,” said the Red
Queen. “Alice–Mutton: Mutton–Alice.”
The mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.
“May I give you a slice?” she said, taking up the knife and fork and looking from one Queen to the other.
“Certainly not,” the Red Queen said very decidedly: “it isn’t etiquette to cut anyone you’ve been introduced to.”
One of the numerous rules which governed a proper Victorian lady’s behavior was the admonition against “cutting.” According to one etiquette guide, “A Lady should never ‘cut’ someone, that is to say, fail to acknowledge their presence after encountering them socially, unless it is absolutely necessary” (Pool 55).
Clearly, Carroll is poking fun at etiquette here both through the punning of the term “to cut” as well as the ridiculous bowing of the leg of mutton. (source: Katherine A. Lim, “Alice–Mutton: Mutton–Alice: Social Parody in the Alice Books“, English 73, 1995, Brown University)
We can also guess the date when the story ‘Through the Looking Glass’ took place.
In the first chapter Alice says that ‘tomorrow’ there’ll be a bonfire. That means that it is November 4, one day before Guy Fawkes Day. This holiday was annually celebrated at Christ Church with a huge bonfire in Peckwater Quadrangle. She also tells Humpty Dumpty that she’s ‘exactly seven and one half years old’, so the continuation probably takes place a half year after the first story, which was dated on May 4th. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998)