AFTER William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll is the most quoted author in the English language, and it is 150 years since the first publication of his most quoted book, Alice in Wonderland.
The story came into being on a dreamy day, July 4, 1862, when Carroll spent a “golden afternoon” sailing on a river in Oxford with three young girls, the Liddell sisters, telling them a fantastic tale. It was first published, as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in July 1865, but Carroll was so unhappy with the reproduction that he recalled all the copies, and only six are known to survive.
A second edition, published in late November 1865, is thus the first official edition – a suitably nonsensical way for this book about unreality to come into being.
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To commemorate the anniversary of this most enduring piece of children’s literature, these are some of Lewis Carroll’s links to the North-East:
In 1843, when Lewis Carroll was a shy, stammering 11-year-old, his father, Charles Dodgson became rector of Croft, on the southern outskirts of Darlington. Carroll’s intimate connection with the village lasted until 1868 when his father died – he is buried in Croft churchyard – and many of the area’s historical stories are to be found in Wonderland.
Croft was prosperous because people came from London to drink the foul-smelling spa water in the belief it would improve their health, in the same way that Alice drinks a potion from a bottle which causes her to change shape.
There were feuding families – Tweedledum and Tweedledee – and an enigmatic grinning feline in the church stonework – the Cheshire Cat. In The Rectory, where the family lived, there was backwards writing on a pane of glass, curious doorways and a cellar like a rabbithole – all of which pop up in Wonderland.
Carroll attended Richmond Grammar School for 18 happy months from the age of 12, boarding with the headmaster, James Tate. Since its founding in 1392 until 1850, the school was in a corner of St Mary’s churchyard above the Swale, and Carroll’s memories of school recalled the japes played among the headstones. After Christmas 1845, he was sent to board at Rugby, where he was not so happy.
From 1852, Carroll’s father was a canon-in-residence at Ripon Cathedral, and the family lived for three months of each year in the cathedral’s shadow. Ripon is bedevilled by gypsum sinkholes which open up in the ground – could one of these be the rabbithole down which Alice fell?
The cathedral was being restored in Carroll’s day, which would have given him the opportunity to study the misericords – the wooden flaps on which members of the clergy could rest their backsides while standing. These have strange carvings of curious creatures on them: griffins, pelicans, dragons, monkeys and blemya, which were strange, shrunken humanoids.
Perhaps the most influential of the misericords was the one showing a griffin chasing a rabbit which disappears down a hole.
In the summer of 1854 when Carroll was studying maths at Christ Church College, Oxford, a group of mathematical students, including Carroll, visited Whitby to give a series of lectures. Carroll was found sitting on a rock on the beach, with a party of entranced children around him, telling stories.
While there, Carroll had a poem published for the first poem. It was The Lady of the Ladle in the Whitby Gazette.
Carroll returned six times to the seaside town – his last visit was in 1871 when his brother got married in Sleights. He usually stayed in East Terrace, above Khyber Pass, and it is said that The Walrus and the Carpenter was inspired by Whitby’s beach.
His Wilcox cousins lived at Whitburn, and he visited regularly. One evening in 1855, as a parlour game, he came up with the most famous stanza of nonsense while at the Wilcoxes. He called it a Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, and it began:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
In 1869, his sister, Mary, married the Reverend Charles Collingwood and they lived in Holy Trinity Rectory in Southwick. It is said that in the rectory, Mr Collingwood had a stuffed walrus, and in Whitburn, Carroll met a ship’s carpenter, which inspired a poem:
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax,
Of cabbages, and kings,
And why the sea is boiling hot,
And whether pigs have wings."
To celebrate the Carroll connection, in Mowbray Gardens, there’s a statue of a walrus.
And to prove Alice really was set in Sunderland, Carroll is said to have visited Whitburn Hall, the home of Sir Hedworth Williamson, where he played croquet and watched the white rabbits Sir Hedworth had introduced to his estate.
We can only guess at how regularly train-loving Carroll visited what was practically his home town, but he certainly did. In Easter 1855, he was teaching his sister about the Greek “father of geometry”, and wrote in his diary: “Went in to Darlington – bought at Swale’s Chamber’s Euclid for Louisa.”
The North-East has many dragon legends upon which to draw, but the Sockburn Worm, just a few miles from his boyhood home, must surely have been the inspiration for The Jabberwocky – the nonsense poem from 1871’s follow-up to Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, which introduced the words “galumphing” and “chortle” to the English language. In real life, the Sockburn Worm was slayed by a brave knight with an enormous falchion that is now in Durham Cathedral, and so in The Jabberwocky, the Jabberwock is killed by a “beamish boy” with a “vorpal sword”.
"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.”
The village near Stanley, now the home of the open air museum, gets its name from an old French word meaning “beautiful mansion”, but it must have been Carroll’s inspiration.
From 1855 while at Croft, Carroll became fascinated by the recently invented art of photography – good results after a picturesque trip to Richmond got him hooked. He travelled the region by train in search of subjects. In 1855, for instance, he visited Tynemouth, and in 1860, he had an article entitled A Photographer’s Day Out published in the South Shields Amateur Magazine.
Perhaps the most memorable of his photography trips was his visit in August 1856 to the Lake District. It rained incessantly, and he returned home via Stainmore, following Dickens’ footsteps into Bowes. He hated it, calling it “the climax of wretchedness”, and describing “a mouthing idiot” who lolled by a corner of an inn.
Barnard Castle fared little better, as the castle guide monotonously bored Carroll with his unceasing spiel, that when the visit was over, Carroll fell on the grass outside the castle roaring with laughter – much to the bemusement of arriving visitors.
10. Bishop Auckland
Carroll’s father was friendly with the Rt Rev Charles Longley, who was Bishop of Ripon for 20 years. In 1856, Longley became Bishop of Durham, and the Dodgson family regularly visited Auckland Castle – Bp Longley is Carroll’s most photographed male subject.
On a visit in 1859, Carroll composed The Legend of Scotland to keep the bishop’s young daughters entertained. It was about the castle’s Scotland Wing, that either got its name as it once housed Scottish prisoners or, just like Scotland, it was cold and remote.
Henry Liddell was born at Binchester, near Bishop Auckland, on February 6, 1811 – his gentry family owned about 14,000 acres of Durham and Northumberland, and had their principal seat at Ravensworth Castle, near Gateshead. After being educated in Ripon, Henry became a renowned classicist, and in 1855, he became dean of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1855, where one of the mathematics lecturers was a 23-year-old called Charles Dodgson. The dean, who spoke with a northern accent, had three daughters. The second of them, Alice, was ten when, on July 4, 1862, “a golden afternoon”, she went for a picnic with Dodgson – and Alice in Wonderland was born.
In August 1886, journalist and dramatist Henry Savile Clarke approached Carroll and asked for permission to adapt Wonderland and Looking Glass for the stage. Carroll agreed, and the musical pantomime was launched to great acclaim in London’s West End that Christmas. This was the first and only adaption that Carroll agreed to, perhaps because he had so much in common with Clarke. They were both the sons of North Yorkshire clergymen – Clarke was born in Guisborough where his father was the vicar. Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Dream Play ran every year in London for four decades, helping cement Carroll’s nonsense firmly in the hearts of the nation.