Alice through the Garden Door

I was told off last week for writing a “teaser” post by mentioning Alice but not including much about her and nothing about Wonderland but today’s I hope will make up for that.

There are two gardens  at Christ Church which have Alice connections. The first  is the Cathedral Garden which was originally part of the precinct of St Frideswide’s, the  priory shut down by Cardinal Wolsey when he founded his college.

The other is the adjacent Deanery Garden, which was then and remains now the private garden of the Dean, who runs not only the cathedral but is also the head of  Christ Church itself.

What were these gardens like?  Is either of them Wonderland?

Was Wonderland real?  The short answer to that question and the previous one, is no, but the fairy-tale nonsense isn’t random or plucked out of thin air.  The places the stories are set in and characters they contain  were based on reality, although a reality much twisted and contorted by both the author’s eccentrically whimsical sense of humour, and perhaps even by other books he had recently read.  Many of the creatures Alice meets can easily be identified as being amongst her and Dodgson’s circle, often playing on their idiosyncrasies.  There are lots of interpretations of the stories and much serious analysis about them from all sorts of perspectives, but there  isn’t really the time or space to go into them here, so I’ve added some references as starting points if you want to go off and investigate further for yourself.  Instead I want to concentrate on the various and obvious horticultural aspects that are revealed.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born in 1832 and had invented stories, games and puzzles and indeed other worlds since childhood, and to continue doing so all his life.   He had arrived at Christ Church as an undergraduate in 1851, and after gaining a first in maths was appointed to a lectureship in 1855.  He was to remain there for the rest of his life, teaching maths as well as writing a series of books on geometry, algebra and logic which are still well regarded.

What is less well known is that he also devised games and puzzles as well as writing poetry and stories  for journals as diverse as Dickens’s All the Year Round and Punch to the Comic Times and The Lady.   It was for one of these pieces that he first wrote under the pseudonym by which he is more famously known.  It was arrived at by translating his first names Charles and Lutwidge, first into Latin as Carolus Ludovicus and then back into English before reversing them to become Lewis Carroll.


Early in 1856 Dodgson purchased a camera and took up the still unusual hobby of photography, and soon became an adept of the latest technology – the wet collodion process – which had only been invented in 1851. Indeed he was so proficient it’s likely he could have made a career as a photographer.    In April that year he went to take some some images of the cathedral and while he was doing so met  the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, the new newly appointed Dean.  He noted in his diary that  ‘The three little girls were in the garden most of the time, and we became excellent friends.” As his biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography commented: “Thus began one of the most exceptional friendships, indeed love affairs, of all time.”

The Liddell sisters outside the Deanery

Dodgson became a regular visitor  to the deanery and  over the next few years his attachment to Alice blossomed.  He often photographed the sisters, played games including chess and croquet with them in the deanery garden, made up and told stories for them and took them on picnics.

It was on one these outings, a boat trip on the river, on 4 July 1862, that he noted : ” I told them the fairy-tale of Alice’s Adventures Underground.”   The ten-year old  Alice begged him  to write the story down, which he eventually did, later presenting her with the manuscript complete with his own illustrations.

Meanwhile he showed the half-finished manuscript to several  friends and was  encouraged to publish the story, but wary of using his own name on such a frivolous non-mathematical piece and  to preserve his privacy he used his previous pseudonym  Lewis Carroll.  All the people involved in that original boat trip were included in the story, but he amended the original for publication  by removing private references and in-jokes  and adding two new chapters and several more characters including – the Duchess, the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter and the March Hare.   Taking advice from John Ruskin who gave drawing lessons to Alice that his own drawings were inadequate Dodgson persuaded John Tenniel, best known for his cartoons in Punch, to undertake the task instead.  The title too was altered: Alice’s Adventures Underground was abandoned first for  “Alice’s Hour in Elfland” before in June 1864, he settled on  “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

The gardens come into the story very early. You’ll remember I’m sure that it begins with Alice falling down a rabbit hole and when she landed seeing a white rabbit, probably inspired by her father,  hurrying by.  After exploring and finding lots of doors and lots of keys which didn’t fit She discovered “a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted! … she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw.”

The real thing!
DM Sept 2019

This door was the one in the wall that divided the cathedral and deanery gardens and that Alice was forbidden to use because what is now the Cathedral garden was then the private garden attached to the house of one of the canons. In Dean Liddell’s day the resident canon was determined to keep his garden private and refused to let anyone use the door to take a short cut to the Cathedral, and certainly not a little girl like Alice, so she had to be contented with what she could see from upstairs windows in the Deanery.

It remained  a private garden right through until 1959 when following the death of the then occupant, the house became extra student accommodation.  The garden was then adopted by the Friends of the Cathedral for a few years but given back to the college in the 1970s.  It’s  enclosed by stone walls and laid to lawn, with a grassy raised terrace along the northern  side which is thought to have been a Tudor bowling alley.

Alice from Carroll;’s manuscript and a firedog in the Great Hall

Since one of the main reasons for tourists visiting Christ Church is to discover more about Alice, and probably to see “the door”  it quickly became part of the established route that visitors walk.  That must have been on the  incentives to plant up  the area near the doorway  with the “Talking Flowers” from Alice Through the Looking Glass [who we’ll meet shortly].   Of course the one thing that everyone wants to do is go through that door and see where it leads. And normally, like Alice, they are disappointed because the Deanery Garden is private and not open to visitors.






As you’ll remember it takes quite a few strange experiences with DRINK ME bottles and  EAT ME cakes, and  encounters with strange creatures  [including the Duck, who was the Rev Duckworth who had accompanied them on the famous boat trip, the Dodo who was Dodgson himself, the Lory who was Alice’s mother, and an eaglet who represented Alice’s younger sister – all clearly identifiable and explained in Mavis Batey’s book]  before Chapter 7 ends with Alice finally finding  “herself  in the beautiful garden, among the bright flower-beds and the cool fountains.”

Carroll’s Wonderland garden of course, much more likely to have been based on the Deanery garden rather than the garden of the canon, since he, like Alice, was unlikely to have been in there, whereas he knew the Deanery garden well.

The Deanery itself is at the rear  of Tom Quad and had served as the HQ of Charles I during his time at Oxford, having previously  hosted Queen Elizabeth I.    Queen Victoria  stayed with Dean Liddell and his family when the future Edward VII was a student at Oxford in 1860 and again when Prince Leopold  her 8th child was there too.





In the fact the Deanery garden is not really that private, being  completely dominated and overlooked  by the 18thc college library. It would certainly have been very well known to Charles Dodgson since he held, amongst other  positions, the sub-librarianship with an office that looked directly into the garden below.  


 There is a long border underneath the library wall and a large semi-circular bed off  the main pathway  but the garden nowadays  mainly laid to grass since it is often used for entertaining.

The only image I could find of what is was like in  Dean Liddell’s day shows it largely as lawn then too.



This can mean that some visitors who do get in expecting a floral “wonderland”  are likely to be somewhat disappointed.  I suspect we all have a personal view of the garden Carroll invented but like all dreamscapes its probably better experienced in the mind rather than expecting the garden team to have attempted the impossible.   If you want to see that you’ll need to go to Atlanta’s Botanic Garden where they have gone to extreme lengths recently to recreate their version.  [Make sure you’re sitting down before you check it out!]



Not my best photo! DM Sept 2019

One thing has not changed much since Alice’s time and that’s the  ancient chestnut tree in one corner.  Now propped and carefully protected it is usually supposed to be where the Cheshire Cat ‘appeared’ and grinned. However the Cathedral Verger begs to differ. He was born in Croft-on-Tees the same village where Dodgson’s father was rector and where the future Lewis Carroll  was bought up,  and claims  that the  real  Cheshire Cat tree is there at Croft.  Like so much else its impossible to prove one way or the other but while there might have been a similar one in his childhood home, I suspect Carroll’s tree  is more likely to have been inspired by the one that Alice knew.

The Cheshire Cat by Tenniel


Repainting the Roses. Carroll’s original drawing on top, and Tenniel’s’ published version below.

We can however guess there was either a rose garden or at least plenty of  roses because Chapter  8 begins: “A large rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red.”  The gardeners were of course based on the spade suit of a pack of cards, and they were awaiting the arrival of the King and Queen of Hearts.

The Queen invites Alice to play croquet.  This was a game taking Victorian England by storm.  Although there is argument about the game’s origins,  the rules were first registered in 1856 and in just a few years  the game had been enthusiastically adopted by those with large enough lawns.  The All England Croquet Club was founded in 1868 at Wimbledon, although it was soon taken over by another fashionable craze for lawn tennis and became The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.   I wonder if it was the fashion conscious  Mrs Liddell who decided to introduce it to the Deanery lawn?

Carroll’s ostrich and Tenniel’s flamingo mallets

Of course Carroll gave croquet  his own twist.   “Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life; it was all ridges and furrows; the balls were live hedgehogs, the mallets live flamingoes [rather than the ostriches in the original version]  and the soldiers had to double themselves up and to stand on their hands and feet, to make the arches”.

Tenniel’s illustration looks little like the Deanery garden but notice  in the background behind the cards is what is thought to be the roofline of the waterlily house in the Botanic Gardens, a short walk away, and one of the popular destinations for Dodgson’s outings with the children. I can’t find a photo of the Botanic Gardens by Dodgson but there is a nice one of the interior of the lily house by his contemporary, Roger Fenton.

Alice in Wonderland ends with Alice saying that she’s had “such a curious dream!” That dream was to continue in its sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass. 

The whole plot [for want of a better word]  is based around   chess a game Carroll played well. Another of his protégées recalled: “We had lovely games. He had backgammon and chess and all the possible things you can think of; but he didn’t play them as one had been taught to play them, he had his own rules. Chess was the greatest fun. We were made to play properly in chess, he was a master of this game – he couldn’t bear to do anything else; but for all the other games he had entirely new rules.”

Tenniel’s Talking Flowers

On her arrival through the mirror Alice headed straight for the garden.  There “she came upon a large flower-bed, with a border of daisies, and a willow-tree growing in the middle” and spots a group of flowers.   “O Tiger-lily,” said Alice, addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind, “I wish you could talk!” “We can talk,” said the Tiger-lily: “when there’s anybody worth talking to.” And so it proved as the Lily was joined in the conversation by a Rose, several Daisies, some Violets and a Larkspur.

Eventually she’s told  “There’s one other flower in the garden that can move about like you,” said the Rose. “I wonder how you do it—” (“You’re always wondering,” said the Tiger-lily), “but she’s more bushy than you are.”

The talking flowers and their warnings are a parody on the recently published poem Maud, by Carroll’s friend the Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson,  published in 1855. The only change is that Carroll, a devout Christian and ordained deacon,  swapped the Passion flower for a tiger lily, I suspect out of deference to mocking the passion of Christ.

Alice encounters the Red Queen

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, ‘She is near, she is near;’
And the white rose weeps, ‘She is late;’
The larkspur listens, ‘I hear, I hear;’
And the lily whispers, ‘I wait.’

“She’s coming!” cries Carroll’s Larkspur. “I hear her footstep, thump, thump, thump, along the gravel-walk!”

This was of course the Red Queen, from the chess board. When Alice was put on stage in 1886 Carroll suggested her character was  ‘the concentrated essence of all governesses’, and there can be little doubt that he was thinking of Alice’s own governess Mary Prickett.

Alice’s view from the top of the hill

Its after this meeting that Alice discovers  that the landscape she is in was a horticultural chessboard with “a number of tiny little brooks running straight across it from side to side, and the ground between was divided up into squares by a number of little green hedges, that reached from brook to brook.” However as the Red Queen concludes “I’ve seen gardens, compared with which this would be a wilderness.”

On July 4, 1865, exactly three years after the memorable row up the river, Carroll gave Alice the first presentation copy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” while the second was sent to Queen Victoria’s daughter, Beatrice.     Carroll did not sign a normal publishers contract but rather commissioned them to publish so he could exercise strict editorial control. 2000 copies were ordered but he and Tenniel decided the quality of first print run was unacceptable and ordered it pulped and reprinted. The second run sold out and was endlessly reprinted. He wrote to Alice in 1892 to tell her ‘your adventures have had a marvellous success. I have now sold well over 100,000 copies’

But by then something had happened only a year after publication and their friendship had stopped.   For a reason one can only speculate about Dodgson became almost persona non grata at the deanery.  One of his heirs later removed the relevant page in his diary and Mrs Liddell is thought to have destroyed letters from him.   Alice went on marry Reginald Hargreaves,  “the sporting scion of landed gentry” and  live on his family estate in the New Forest. They had three sons,  two of who were killed in the Great War while the third, interestingly named Caryl, was a spendthrift. In 1928 she sold the Alice manuscript to make ends meet but was feted at the centenary celebrations for Dodgson’s birth in 1932 although she confessed she was  ‘tired of being Alice in Wonderland’. She died in 1934

The last lines of Through the Looking Glass are an acrostic poem of her full name – Alice Pleasance Liddell-  which ends :

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

For more information good palces to start are the British Library pages on Alice and the comprehensive coverage at Christ Church. Princeton hold the largest collection of his photographs but not all have been digitized.

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2 Responses to Alice through the Garden Door

  1. alyskatharine says:

    In 2006 when I attended a seminar at Christ Church College, the gentleman giving the tour of Hall pointed out a door behind the dais (on the left as one looks at that end of the room) that he said was where Professor Dodgson would “disappear” after meals along with others who sat at the high table. He claimed that was where the professor/rabbit would disappear down the rabbit hole.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid he was being a bit naughty because as the Christ Church blog points out while “tradition has it that the spiral stone staircase behind the door gave Carroll the idea for the rabbit hole well. But, however much of a lovely idea this might be, especially as it leads down to the Senior Common Room where senior members of Christ Church might find a bottle with ‘Drink Me’ on the label, the staircase was not actually built until 1908” ten years after Carroll died. You can find the full piece here:


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