Alice in Wonderland. Image courtesy of Special Collections Toronto Public Library and Flickr.

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Lewis Carroll’s Oxford: A Thorough Guide to Alice In Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland. Image courtesy of Special Collections Toronto Public Library and Flickr.

One of the most popular associations Oxford has had with literature (apart from Tolkien and the Harry Potter books and films) is, undoubtedly, Alice in Wonderland. Did you know that Lewis Carroll (then called Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) actually studied here? That’s right. Dodgson remained at Christ Church College for over thirty years, first as a student and then as a tutor. Here’s why he loved Oxford, and how the city inspired his most memorable book; Alice in Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll At Oxford

Lewis Carroll was a prominent figure at the University of Oxford in the 19th century. He actually held the position of a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, where he spent most of his academic career.

Dodgson was a talented mathematician, and he taught mathematics at Christ Church College from 1855 to 1881. That’s right. Although Dodgson is most famous for his literary works, including “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” he began writing these stories during his time at Oxford.

In addition to mathematics, Dodgson also had an interest in logic and philosophy. He wrote several books and essays on logic and symbolic logic, and his work in this area included books like “Symbolic Logic” and “The Game of Logic.” Dodgson was an early adopter of photography, too, and he often used photography as a means of artistic expression. In fact, he took many photographs of the people he knew, including the young Alice Liddell (the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland).

Oxford Christ Church College - Image courtesy ofArnaud Malon

Christ Church College

Christ Church is college of the University of Oxford. It was founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII and is one of the larger colleges.

Lewis Carroll self-portrait c. 1856.
Lewis Carroll self-portrait c. 1856, aged 24 at that time.

Alice in Wonderland (and in Oxford)

While Dodgson’s contributions to mathematics and logic are still recognized, he is best known today for his imaginative and whimsical literary works, particularly the “Alice” stories, which have become classics of children’s literature.

The story of Alice’s adventures was first told by Dodgson to Alice Liddell and her sisters on a boat trip, and he later expanded and published it. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is, in fact, closely linked to the city of Oxford, particularly Christ Church College. So, let’s take a look at the different locations currently connected to the book and its author.

The Origin of the Alice in Wonderland and Its Setting

As we have just mentioned, the story of Alice’s adventures was first told by Dodgson during a boat trip on the River Thames to Alice Liddell and her sisters. Alice Liddell, in particular, asked Dodgson to write down the story, which eventually became the book. This initial storytelling took place on July 4, 1862, during a trip from Oxford to Godstow

The story begins with Alice and her sister sitting on the bank of a river, which is believed to be inspired by the setting along the banks of the River Thames near Oxford. Moreover, Christ Church Meadow and its surroundings in Oxford are often thought to be the inspiration for some of the story’s landscapes.

Christ Church College, The White Rabbit, and Alice

Christ Church College in Oxford is prominently featured in the story. The novel’s famous rabbit hole, through which Alice falls into Wonderland, is said to have been inspired by a door in the Christ Church College Cathedral. The Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter are believed to have been inspired by real-life people associated with the college.

The White Rabbit in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, in fact, serves as a significant and multifaceted symbol in the story. He is the one who sets the story in motion by being the catalyst for Alice’s journey into Wonderland. he White Rabbit is always in a hurry, constantly checking his pocket watch and worrying about being late. This can symbolize the pressure of time and the idea that life is fleeting. It suggests that Alice, like many children and adults, may feel the pressure to grow up and conform to societal expectations.

A white rabbit in one of Christ Church stained glass windows.
The white rabbit in one of Christ Church stained glass windows that served as inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.

The Characters and Oxford

Dodgson was immersed in the academic and intellectual culture of Oxford, and this influenced the wordplay, logical paradoxes, and absurdity found throughout the story. Oxford’s influence can be seen in the way Dodgson incorporated mathematical and logical concepts into the narrative, reflecting his background as a mathematics lecturer at the university.

Many of the characters in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” are also thought to have been influenced by people Dodgson knew in Oxford. For example, the character of the Dodo is believed to be a playful reference to Dodgson himself, as his real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, can be humorously shortened to “Dodo.”

Other Important Lewis Carroll Oxford Locations

The city of Oxford, where Lewis Carroll spent a significant portion of his life, is rich with many other locations that are important to his life and work. Here are the most important ones and how you can visit them:

  • Christ Church College: Christ Church College at the University of Oxford was where Dodgson worked as a mathematics lecturer. It played a central role in his life and work. The college’s iconic architecture, including the Tom Tower, the Great Hall, and the college’s gardens, served as inspiration for various elements in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” For example, the rabbit hole that Alice falls into is believed to have been inspired by a door in the Christ Church Cathedral.

  • Christ Church Cathedral: Located within Christ Church College, the cathedral was an important part of Dodgson’s life. He often attended services there, and it’s where he met Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice, and her family. The cathedral is also home to the Lewis Carroll Memorial Window, dedicated to his memory.

  • The River Thames: The River Thames flows through Oxford, and Dodgson often took boat trips on the river with the Liddell family. The famous “golden afternoon” boat trip on July 4, 1862, during which he first told the story of Alice’s adventures, took place on the river near Oxford.

  • The Liddell Home: The Liddell family, particularly Alice Liddell, played a crucial role in Dodgson’s life and the creation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Their home, known as “The Deanery” (the residence of the Dean of Christ Church College), was a place where Dodgson spent time with the Liddell children, and it’s where he began telling the story of Alice.

  • The Alice Door: The “Alice Door” is a famous wooden door in the Christ Church College gardens that is said to have inspired the idea of the tiny door through which Alice enters Wonderland. Visitors to Oxford can still see this door today.

  • Oxford University Botanic Garden: Dodgson frequented the Botanic Garden in Oxford, which is the oldest botanic garden in the United Kingdom. The garden’s beautiful and varied plant life may have influenced the vivid descriptions of flora in Wonderland.

  • The Eagle and Child Pub: While this pub is more famously associated with authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, it is still a notable Oxford literary location. Dodgson may have visited the pub during his time in Oxford, as it was a gathering place for Oxford’s literary circles.

Oxford Shopping: Alice's Shop

Alice’s Shop

Alice’s Shop is a little shop placed exactly where Alice Liddell (the “real” Alice that inspired the books) used to buy sweets.

Alice In Wonderland Free Self-Guided Walking Tour

If you’re visiting Oxford and you want to explore the main sights connected to Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll, here’s a handy map showing the most important locations. You can use the link below the image to download it to your phone or computer.

Books to Help You Explore Alice in Wonderland in Oxford

If you want to learn more about Alice in Wonderland and Carroll’s life at Oxford, here are some recommended books:

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