07/03/03
The Day Alice Was Written
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

Published in 1865, the bizarre and nonsensical Alice in Wonderlandmarks the moment when literature for children became something more than nursery rhymes and moral tales. It is amazing to think that a good deal of that story was composed on the occasion of a simple boat ride.

Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College in Oxford. On July 4, 1862, Dodgson and his friend, Robinson Duckworth, decided to take a row up the river Isis, heading north from Oxford, past the wide green flats of Port Meadow and on up to the ruins of Godstow Abbey. Traveling with them were three young girls, the Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice and Edith,the daughters of the Dean of the college.

Alice, age 10, was placed at the back of the boat. It was her job to steer. Duckworth rowed from the middle while Dodgson rowed from the bow. The day was blazing hot, and Dodgson later recalled the "cloudless blue above" and the "watery mirror below." It wasn't long before the children demanded that Dodgson entertain them with a story, as he had done on numerous occasions. Dodgson wrote that "In a desperate attempt to strike some new line of fairy-lore, I sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards." As he rowed from the bow Dodgson invented the story, and everyone in the boat was a character in the tale. The Dodo was Dodgson, the duck was Duckworth, the lory, Lorina, the eaglet, Edith, and of course, Alice was Alice. Duckworth , who was hearing the story told over his shoulder, was impressed by its originality and he called back to Dodgson to ask him if he was really making it up. Dodgson replied "Yes, I'm inventing as we go along."

The heat of the day found the party landed at Godstow. Dodgson and the others unloaded a picnic and sheltered themselves in the shade of a large haystack. The children demanded that the story continue, and though Dodgson pretended to fall asleep at the most exciting moments, Alice's Adventures Under Ground, as it was titled on that day, was eventually brought to completion. Dodgson later wrote:


Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out,
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Copyright 2003 Kevin Shortsleeve

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