Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


Xiao Nan Yu with Artists of the Ballet in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

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✮/4 Delightful… irresistibly captivating. Audiences responded with unbridled enthusiasm.” — Toronto Star

“The bright light of Alice will never dim. It is a ballet that will keep revealing its riches.” — The Globe and Mail

“Continues to wow with its rich score, clever choreography and over-the-top theatrical design. Alice has set the standard for 21st-century narrative ballet.” — National Post

/5 Potent magic.” — Toronto Sun

“The National Ballet of Canada's Alice is a wonderland… technical brilliance, comedy, acting and élan by Canada's premiere ballet company, an impressively disciplined ensemble that I wish would visit these parts more often… a perfect show for all audiences.” — The OC Register

“Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is magic brought to life… unlike any ballet production I've ever been to. It makes the audience forget the world outside and believe that anything is possible.” — Experience

“The National Ballet of Canada's hugely ambitious production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has much to offer. A world-class choreographer in Christopher Wheeldon, an original score by Joby Talbot, superb dancing, romance, and a surprise ending.” — LA


Act I

Oxford, 1862. A summer afternoon. Henry Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church, and his socially ambitious wife are about to host a garden party at the Deanery. Lewis Carroll, a lecturer in mathematics and friend of the Liddell family, entertains the three young Liddell daughters, Lorina, Alice and Edith, by reading a story and performing magic tricks.

When Jack, the gardener’s boy, brings in a basket of roses, Alice’s mother – always pernickety about appearances – rejects the red one as being out of place among the white ones. Jack and Alice are friends. He gives her the discarded red rose and in return she gives him a jam tart that she has taken from a passing tray. This leads to disaster: Alice’s mother seizes on it as a pretext to accuse Jack of theft and dismiss him.

The clock strikes four. Guests arrive and the party begins. Alice is devastated to see Jack leaving the house in disgrace. Lewis Carroll consoles her by offering to take her photograph. He disappears beneath the camera cloth and, to Alice’s surprise, emerges as a White Rabbit. When he leaps onto the table and vanishes into the jelly mould, Alice follows
him, falls…
falls further…
…and lands with a thump in a mysterious corridor. Through a keyhole, Alice spies a magical garden. She longs to enter it but, to her dismay, all the doors are locked.

Unexpectedly Jack, transformed into the Knave of Hearts, rushes through the hall pursued by the Queen of Hearts, her guards and the White Rabbit: the Knave has been accused of stealing a plate of jam tarts. Alice wants to follow them but the door slams in her face, and the only unlocked door is too small to let her through. A bottle appears: Alice bravely drinks from it and at once becomes so tiny that she can’t even reach up to the door handle. She tries a nibble of cake, which has the effect of making her enormous. She cries with frustration and, by waving a fan, shrinks so drastically that her tears form a lake big enough for her to swim in.

She is joined in the pool by a variety of animals who swim about and finally collect on the shore. In the hope that the exercise will dry them off and cheer them up, Alice arranges a caucus race after which the White Rabbit appears and, although in a hurry, leads Alice further in to Wonderland.

Outside an idyllic country cottage a Fish-footman appears, bringing an invitation to a Duchess to attend the Queen of Hearts’ croquet party. The Duchess’s footman – a Frog – invites him into the cottage, leaving Alice with the invitation. She enters the cottage …
…to find a menacing kitchen where the Duchess is tending a squealing baby as the Cook makes sausages. The Duchess is delighted with the royal invitation, while the Cook is envious and resentful. The mood becomes increasingly violent, apart from a moment of tranquility brought about by the mysterious appearance of a Cheshire Cat. Fearful for the baby’s safety, Alice rescues it, but when it turns into a pig the Duchess takes it from her and carries it back to the kitchen for a future as a string of sausages. The White Rabbit reappears, anxious about his forthcoming duties at the Queen’s croquet game. He warns Alice not to follow him to the Royal Garden; it is notoriously dangerous to be anywhere near the bad-tempered Queen.

Without warning the Knave dashes in with the tray of tarts, still pursued by the Royal Guards. The White Rabbit has no choice but to hide Alice and the Knave in the Duchess’s cottage. The Royal Procession arrive, out for the regular afternoon stroll. The ever opportunistic Duchess greets the Queen with a gift of her special sausages. Revolted, the Queen orders the procession to move on, the White Rabbit gives the Knave the all clear to make his escape. Alice tries to go with him but the White Rabbit and the Knave agree it is far too dangerous for her. They blindfold her to prevent her from following.

Act II

Confused as to which way to go, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat for directions, but his vagueness leaves her more confused than ever and she finds herself …
…at the bizarre tea table of the Mad Hatter, a March Hare and a sleepy Dormouse. Alice escapes their crazy tea party and finds herself alone and lost. “What a strange place Wonderland is”. She wonders how to find the Knave, and longs to find the beautiful garden. An exotic Caterpillar, perched on a mushroom, lifts hers spirits and, before disappearing, gives her a piece of mushroom. 

Alice finds herself back in the hallway of doors where she first arrived. She remembers the Caterpillar’s gift, nibbles the sliver of mushroom – and the walls and doors disappear. At last she finds herself in the garden she was searching for. 

The Knave appears, still fleeing his pursuers, and is as delighted to see her as she is to see him. But their time together is all too short: the Queen of Hearts arrives flanked by her guards. Furious, she orders the capture of the Knave, but he escapes. The White Rabbit dashes after them, reluctantly taking Alice with him, even at the cost of leading her into danger.



In the garden of the Queen of Hearts, Alice finds three nervous gardeners splashing red paint on the rosebushes: they have mistakenly planted white ones, which the Queen of Hearts detests.

The Queen arrives along with the King, the Court, the Duchess and the Cook. The gardeners haven’t yet finished painting the rosebushes, so the Queen orders the gardeners to be executed. While the Executioner is distracted by the amorous attentions of the Cook, Alice and the White Rabbit smuggle the grateful gardeners out of sight.

The Queen displays her dancing skills to the Court, after which she and the Duchess pick their teams for the croquet game. Flamingos will be the mallets and hedgehogs the balls. To the Queen’s dismay, the Duchess scores the first points: she’s much better at this than anyone expected.

Meanwhile the Knave, risking all by being there, catches Alice’s attention from behind a hedge. As the game shifts to another part of the garden, the two are reunited.

The Queen is so chagrined by her rival’s success that she cheats at the game. The Duchess challenges her, whereupon the Queen orders her execution. The King, ever patient, calms the Queen down while Alice helps the Duchess to slip away.

The Knave rejoins Alice, but this time he is discovered and the Queen orders the guards to haul him to the castle to face trial. When the Cheshire Cat makes another mysterious appearance, Alice uses the distraction to follow the Knave.

At the castle, the White Rabbit prepares the courtroom for the trial. The witnesses are brought in, followed by Alice. The plate of tarts is displayed as key evidence, the members of the Court take their places and the White Rabbit heralds the arrival of the King and Queen of Hearts. The Queen seizes her moment to exercise her authority over the proceedings, the Knave is brought in for trial and the proceedings begin.

The first witness is the Mad Hatter, followed by the Caterpillar, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the fish- and frog-footmen, the Duchess and the Cook. In a moment of total mayhem, they all accuse the Knave.

The King finally asserts himself and offers the Knave the chance to speak in his own defence. When his testimony produces little effect, Alice intervenes with all the force she can muster. The Knave is innocent, she insists: if anyone is guilty, it is she. Together, they deliver a final testimony and win the hearts of everyone but the Queen.

Unmoved by the Court’s entreaties, the Queen seizes an axe in order to strike the fatal blows herself. A chase ensues, during which the White Rabbit and the witnesses attempt to hide the Knave and Alice. But the Queen discovers them and does her best to turn the Court against them. With no escape in view, Alice pushes a witness over. He falls over on top of another, who then falls on another, which results in the collapse of the entire Court: they’re only playing cards, after all.

And in the midst of the chaos, Alice awakes.

– Nicholas Wright

Backstage at Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


  • The Queen of Hearts, Alice and the White Rabbit
    The Queen of Hearts, Alice and the White Rabbit 

    Xiao Nan Yu as the Queen of Hearts makes her first entrance, with Elena Lobsanova as Alice and Dylan Tedaldi as the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • the Trial scene
    the Trial scene

    Looking onstage from the wings during the Trial scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • A flower warms up
    A flower warms up

    A Flower warms up backstage at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • Alice during the Pool of Tears scene
    Alice during the Pool of Tears scene 

    Elena Lobsanova as Alice during the Pool of Tears scene, shot from the wings. Photo by Sian Richards. .

  • Ca Flamingo
    a Flamingo 

    Tiffany Mosher as a Flamingo, backstage at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • Hedgehogs from Canada’s National Ballet School
    Hedgehogs from Canada’s National Ballet School 

    Hedgehogs from Canada’s National Ballet School ready to go onstage in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • he Knave of Hearts stretching
    he Knave of Hearts stretching 

    Keiichi Hirano as the Knave of Hearts stretching backstage at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • Queen of Hearts, working on her red pointe shoes
    Queen of Hearts, working on her red pointe shoes. 

    Xiao Nan Yu as Queen of Hearts, working on her red pointe shoes backstage at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • Krista Dowson and Shaila D’Onofrio backstage
    Krista Dowson and Shaila D’Onofrio backstage 

    Krista Dowson and Shaila D’Onofrio backstage at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • prepared to go onstage for the Flower Garden scene
    prepared to go onstage for the Flower Garden scene 

    An Artist of the Ballet prepared to go onstage for the Flower Garden scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • athryn Hosier rehearsing with the Cheshire Cat head
    Kathryn Hosier rehearsing with the Cheshire Cat head 

    Kathryn Hosier rehearsing with the Cheshire Cat head backstage at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • the Queen and King of Hearts
    the Queen and King of Hearts 

    Xiao Nan Yu and Kevin D. Bowles as the Queen and King of Hearts, getting into character backstage at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.

  • Hedgehogs

    Hedgehogs from Canada’s National Ballet School ready to go onstage for the Garden scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Sian Richards.


Background Notes


Wheeldon on Wonderland: An interview with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon >
Alice’s Multi-Coloured Sounds: An interview with composer Joby Talbot >
Lewis Carroll: An Unconventional Character >


Wheeldon on Wonderland: An interview with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon interviewed by Mark Monahan, Dance Critic of The Daily Telegraph, London

Mark Monahan: So, what first drew you to the story of Alice? 

Christopher Wheeldon: I grew up listening to a tape of Alice in Wonderland that I was given one Christmas, a childhood thing to get me to sleep. Of all people, it was Kenneth Williams reading it – not exactly the dulcet tones to send your child off! I loved the characters, and came to love the mysteries and mathematical problems and wordplay that are locked in to the literature. It was the vividness of the book’s characters, and the way they all lend themselves to being communicated through movement – it’s a very physical story.

MM: What aspect of the production did you tackle first?

CW: Many of the problems with Alice stem from its episodic nature. The challenges we faced were: what is Alice’s journey? Does she just fall down the hole, have all those crazy episodes and then wake up? Or is there more of a journey? I’ve developed synopses before by myself, but never brilliantly. And so, I thought: get some help here, because this is too important. I wanted someone with a real sense of how to put together a dramatic arc over the course of an evening, and that’s why I got Nicholas [Wright, the playwright] involved. I spent three fantastic days in my apartment in New York with him and Joby [Talbot, the composer], just reading the books, and I hired in a little keyboard so Joby had something to tinkle around on. We went through it, scene by scene, first deciding which ones would work best in this production, then settling on a structure.. After that, Joby and I went at it the old-fashioned way, as choreographer and composer.

MM: How did that process work?

CW: I had never worked on a new, full-length narrative score. Joby had written a lot for film, and had orchestrated fantastic dance pieces too: Chroma [for Royal Ballet Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor], and my Fool’s Paradise. In both, he created these unusual, shimmering orchestral colours that to me felt absolutely like the right direction with Alice – it’s a fairytale, but it’s absurd and a little strange, and I needed a composer who could take those elements and create a big symphonic score. His work in film has really helped us, because he knows how to write for character – but then, film is very different from dance, and so for Joby it was about learning how to structure a variation for a dancer, and so on. After those days in New York, it was a case of: OK Joby, off you go! Every step of the way, we were talking, and he would send me pieces he’d written. Even going only by the computerized simulations of the orchestra, you can tell his score is very vividly drawn, just like the characters in the Carroll. I love it, and it’s accessible too – and that’s important. Alice is a ballet we hope all sorts of people will come to over a long period.

MM: And how did you approach the choreography?

CW: Most of my work so far has been kind of exploring the abstract. What I’ve learnt from Alice is that if you’re telling a story, the story comes first: your job as a choreographer is of course always to communicate through movement. But here, above all, it is to convey the building-blocks of the story, and then, within that, to explore vocabulary to define individual characters.

MM: The Carroll story is not without its dark side, and nor – it has often been suggested – was Carroll himself. How did you decide on an emotional ‘register’ for your Alice?

CW: Well, I did a lot of research on Lewis Carroll, and I do think there was some kind of strange, complicated, repressed part of his character. But there’s certainly no proof that he ever acted upon it – these creative people do exist who have a connection with children. I prefer to believe that Carroll was in fact the brilliant storyteller, mathematical scholar and devout churchman that a lot of people believed he was. So no, I haven’t gone Freudian with Alice – there’s no MacMillanesque suicide pact at the end, and nor is there any suggestion of authorial impropriety. But on the other hand, there is an underlying, scary darkness to the story. I think that’s what makes it appealing for kids, and we’ve kept that.

MM: So, when did you actually start working on the steps?

CW: In February of 2010 – The Royal Ballet were keen on it being a year-long process. I work very quickly, always have, and that stems from being in New York and working at New York City Ballet. Everything’s done quickly there, and that goes back to Balanchine and Robbins: you make a lot of work, keep some, scrap some. So, the idea of taking a year to make a ballet was odd to me. I thought, “Come on guys – I could make three full-length ballets in a year!” As it turned out, The Royal Ballet just don’t work that way. It was a case of, “You can have one rabbit, in a small studio, for an hour and a half”, and then for three days there’d be nothing, because they’d be getting on with Mayerling or whatever.

MM: Why such a difference?

CW: In New York, it was bang, bang, bang – you learn a ballet in a day, you’re on in the evening. But in London, the ballets are big and involved – you can’t just throw, say, Mayerling at the stage. Whereas the Balanchine ballets are about understanding musicality and choreography, they’re not really about developing character.

MM: Dance is necessarily a collaborative discipline between choreographer and dancer, but to what extent is this true for you?

CW: I never “prep”, never go into a room on my own and create vocabulary – I love exploring things with dancers. But at the same time, Alice is actually the clearest I’ve ever been. I really knew what I wanted out of this ballet.

MM: Were you tempted to dance in it yourself?

CW: Oh no, no… The Duchess is probably the only role I could just about carry off!

This article is from The Royal Ballet house programme, courtesy The Royal Opera House. 


Composer Joby Talbot on Alice’s Multi-Coloured Sounds
Interview by John Snelson

I thought long and hard before agreeing to write the score for Alice, as I realized what an enormous task it would be, and indeed, it has taken me over two years. It’s extraordinary to look at the Prologue now and think back to its inception and the many stages it has been through. I’d previously written a 90-minute piece for dance, but thatwas more an orchestral work to which choreography was added, and in five movements, it was symphonic and could gradually unfold. Because Alice is made up of small set pieces, it was like building a house with just one room, then adding another, then another, then another...

I divide my work fairly evenly between concert music and film scoring, and I had thought that writing a narrative ballet would be much more like the latter than it turned out to be. Within an hour-long film score, only about ten minutes of music will ever really appear in the foreground to drive the narrative. The rest fits behind dialogue, provides atmospheric underscore or catches an emotional moment. In ballet, the music is absolutely in the foreground all the time: quite literally, the orchestra is between the audience and the people dancing on stage. There’s not an easy second in it, so as the composer, you’re never off the hook. It was a much more intense – and intensive – experience composing two hours of music for Alice; ten minutes more and I might have been admitted to a sanatorium.

Usually I start composing at the piano, throwing ideas around and scribbling them down on paper. The initial process for Alice was the same, if somewhat improvised – the Muse descended into the studio I was working at in Shoreditch. We’d finished recording another project, the mixing was being done in the next room and it was all going rather well. I felt inspired, locked myself in a room with a piano for an hour, and came up with Alice’s theme, the White Rabbit’s theme, the opening music and a whole lot more, all scribbled on the backs of spare bits of music that were lying around the studio. Later I started putting the themes together and discovered a strange, shifting bitonal music – a restless ticking clock – for Wonderland. Then a love theme, and a theme for loneliness: all these recur as storytelling devices. Our version of the story has made Alice very central, rather than confining her to the more observational role she has in the book. So we meet characters through her experience of them and through the colour of her mood, which means great fun for me musically – Alice can be grumpy, happy, sad, lonely or exhausted or confused; if she were just amused on the sidelines I’d soon run out of musical ideas for her. Instead, we have a scene such as that immediately preceding her encounter with the Caterpillar: she’s met all these crazy characters, and she is fed up, tired and lost, as you would be; later, when she is finally reunited with the Knave, there’s real ecstatic joy musically. I’ve had to really think about making big gestures through musical characterization; for example, the Queen is supposed to be completely psychotic, but she does have poise – Christopher [Wheeldon] described her as some very on-edge hostess at a dinner party, wanting everything to be so perfect that it never is: cold, poised, demanding; then an outburst of anger; then the mask goes back on. This was the image that informed my writing of her tango music, with psychotic eruptions for no clear reason save her having snapped at maximum tension.

I had worked with Christopher previously on Fool’s Paradise for Morphoses, orchestrating and re-editing for the ballet a score I had written for The Dying Swan, a silent film from 1917. The score had elements of creaky Edwardian tea dance music, but developed in a very modern way with arithmetical games. That may have been a facet of my music that appealed to Christopher – given that his own work is steeped in classical ballet, but permeated by a very fresh sensibility – and when I sat down to write Alice I was mindful of the things that he’d liked about that previous score. So Alice contains melodic or harmonic gestural elements that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 19th-century ballet score, yet the whole thing is filtered through a minimal, arithmetical prism. An example is the process whereby the Flower Waltz material returns, transfigured into a huge love theme. It’s the same use of overlapping cells and rhythms that you might find in John Adams or Steve Reich, and sometimes, though it may seem easy to wallow in a kind of cod-Tchaikovsky kitsch, what you are hearing is only one strand in a whole group of musical games that are going on, so actually you’ve got to be absolutely rhythmic and metronomically uncompromising.

Unable to beam myself to a piano stool in New York, I had to get the music to Christopher by recording myself at my own piano. To minimize the hazard of wrong notes, I also made demos using the computer, during which process other musical ideas suggested themselves. Ultimately the composition was a combination of writing at the piano, writing on paper, using the computer, making demos, changing them, and then being able to settle back and listen to long stretches of it and see how it was panning out at a macro level.


I was aware that when Christopher got into the studio with the dancers he’d want changes to the music, so the orchestration was approached relatively late in the process, after the detail had been locked down. I think this has been good from Christopher’s perspective, offering as it did a degree of flexibility that would have been impossible if I’d delivered everything bound, signed and sealed to the music library in one lot. For me, however, having climbed a monolithic, two-hour compositional mountain, I then had to climb it all over again, and much faster, orchestrating as I went. I have been extremely fortunate to have made this return journey with my friend and collaborator Christopher Austin, who has worked his extraordinary and very rapid magic on a good deal of the score. Together I think we’ve managed very satisfactorily and no limbs were lost.

With such a beautiful colouristic story, I wanted the score to be multi-coloured and to have that massive variety and scale. There are instruments associated with certain characters; for example, the White Rabbit is associated with the celesta, there’s an oboe d’amore solo for the Caterpillar, and the Queen of Hearts is portrayed by a solo violin tuned a semitone sharp – highly strung for a highly-strung character.

However, you are limited by what can be squeezed into the pit: at the first orchestral rehearsal I was amazed to see that everything I’d asked for was actually there, and very close together. There’s a lot of percussion – it takes up probably a good third of the space – because I like instruments that you can hit and then leave to ring on: the weightless, effortless tone of a bell sounding long after the energy of striking it has been spent. The harp, vibraphone, tubular bells and many more together can give a wonderful glowing halo to the orchestra, and individual themes can be coloured in very interesting ways, by injecting vibraphone or a tremolo marimba into the middle of a lovely warm, rich string sound and giving it a shimmering glow that really appeals to me. Then there’s the impact of timpani and bass drums: if you want people to jump out of their seats, the timpani were born to it.

The Flower Waltz is an interesting demonstration of certain signposts in the music. In the first act, Alice’s motivation is that she’s trying to get to the party – this idea is in the book, but we have magnified it. She has a glimpse of the flower garden early on, and, more importantly, she knows the Knave of Hearts will be there and that she has to get to him, so all her travels and everyone she meets in the first act are part of her journey to that party: whenever she hears the Flower Waltz music, she knows she should head towards it. Sometimes she thinks she’s there, sometimes she’s so close but gets lost and finally, when she arrives, we hear the Flower Waltz in its entirety as the culmination of a journey that has taken about 50 minutes. We then depart as the waltz is transformed by her love for the Knave and her own sense of growing up. That is the journey of the first act, and the musical structure it fits around. The second act has more individual set pieces, but continually returns to music with an urgency and drive, a sense of danger and disquiet, as it all shifts forward to another culmination at the end of the second act, the love pas de deux.

The strengths of the book are many, but we have forfeited some of the prominent ones: people think of Tenniel’s wonderful crazy illustrations, which we don’t have, and all the clever word -play, which we don’t have, but we’ve retained Carroll’s imagery and some of the humour, both of which are very strong. We had to find a way of making it work without all the elements of the book that were simply not at our disposal, and to give it more emotional bulk and texture. Very early in the process of creating Alice, Christopher, Nick [Wright] and I had the most wonderful few days flagging up possible insurmountable problems and finding ways to surmount them. Having Nick there was invaluable, he’s such an experienced and talented theatrical craftsman. That allowed Christopher and me to more freely throw ideas into the hat: we could be as daring as we wanted as there was somebody there with a very clear idea of what might and might not work. From there it was a case of problems posing themselves, Christopher thinking of a way to present them choreographically, me thinking how to present them musically, and Nick – and then Bob [Crowley] – thinking how to present them theatrically and visually. It has been a wonderful parallel creative process.

This article is from The Royal Ballet house programme, courtesy The Royal Opera House. 

Lewis Carroll: An Unconventional Character
By Jenny Woolf

Alice’s curious adventures down the rabbit hole have intrigued readers ever since they first appeared in 1865, and ‘Lewis Carroll’ – whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – was a fascinating man. A mass of self-contradictions, he was prim yet broadminded, solemn yet teasing, a natural performer who hoped for fame yet shunned it when it came.

His father, a clergyman, had planned a conventional life for him. As the eldest son of 11 children, young Charles always knew that he would eventually become head of the family, responsible for the welfare of his three younger brothers and seven sisters, and he would also be expected to follow in his father’s footsteps at Christ Church, Oxford. He was apparently happy to accept these responsibilities, for his family mattered to him a great deal. He did not attend school until he was 12 years old, but the Dodgsons’ rural home was lively, happy and affectionate, and it provided him with a secure background. Equally importantly, it offered full rein to his gift for entertaining children. Throughout his childhood, Charles tirelessly created games for his band of brothers and sisters, nursed and amused them when they were ill, and devised a stream of funny stories, poems, puzzles, magic and puppet-shows to make them laugh. By the time he took up his college existence, telling jokes and stories to children had become part of the person he was.

In those early Christ Church days, Dean Liddell’s young children seem to have become almost a substitute family for him. He became friends first with Harry, the eldest, then with the next three: Lorina, Alice and Edith. He looked after them, sang with them, told them stories, took them out, created games with them and helped them with their projects, just as he had done with his own brothers and sisters. Perhaps their company also offered him some emotional relief, for in some ways Christ Church life did not suit him very well. Although he was clever and conscientious, he could not keep order, and he had problems tutoring wealthy and undisciplined young men who ridiculed his stammer and did not want to learn. He coped with his social difficulties by developing a solemn, chilly public image that kept others at bay. This facade was so successful that many colleagues who lived alongside him for years hardly knew of his startling originality, subversive humour or wide range of artistic interests. Although his subject was mathematics, he owned hundreds of books of poetry, myth, legend and magic, as well as a collection of toys and fancy dresses. He was a keen photographer, and he was passionate about the dazzle and glitter of the theatre.

The medieval rules at Christ Church required him to remain celibate or quit his Studentship (Fellowship), but from his twenties onwards, his liking for women’s company sometimes attracted critical attention from gossips; a problem that he, his family and friends always played down. In his late twenties he experienced some kind of serious problem in his personal life. Information about this has been suppressed, but throughout his thirties and forties, he made particular efforts to confine his female friendships to young girls, respectable mothers or older women with whom there was no chance of romance.


He was always an instant social success with children, and the company of little girls became very important to him – and important to many of them, too. ‘I look back upon the hours spent in his dear and much-loved company as oases of brightness in a somewhat grey and melancholy childhood’ remembered Ethel, the niece of Matthew Arnold. She was just one of many girls (and some boys) who remembered him with affection. Although he named his celebrated heroine after Alice Liddell, there is no evidence that Charles ever fell in love with this ‘real’ Alice, as has sometimes been suggested. Although he was very fond of the bright, feisty little girl, the friendship died away as she developed into a conventional young woman, and he said more than once that she was not the Alice of his books.

As he grew older Charles remained kind, generous and highly involved with his friends and family, but his behaviour with outsiders became increasingly difficult and eccentric. He continued to hold firmly to the religious faith in which he had been raised, but his piety sometimes appeared extreme. To some of his contemporaries, this also sat oddly with his ever-growing entourage of affectionate women-friends, but he insisted that he was now entitled to these, having reached an age, he said, when ‘all romantic sentiment has quite died out of my life’. His later books were self-conscious and rather mediocre, but he continued to tell original, funny and brilliant tales to the children he loved. Sadly, they vanished ‘like rainbows’, for none of his young friends had the commercial acumen to ask him to write them down.

We now know that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its companion Through the Looking-Glass were both created at times of great personal stress for him. In writing them, he would have returned in imagination to the loving and carefree company of the young Liddells, to whom they were originally told. His authentic voice speaks in both books but, typically, he always refused to discuss them with adults, while simultaneously taking endless pains to ensure they reached the widest possible child audience.

Over the last 150 years, generations of children have grown up on his stories, and many of them have later repaid him by producing their own works of art inspired by Alice’s adventures: a group of works as interesting and multi-faceted as Charles Dodgson himself.

Jenny Woolf is the author of The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, a thematic biography of the author of Alice in Wonderland, published by Haus (UK) and St Martins Press (US A).

This article from The Royal Ballet house programme, courtesy The Royal Opera House. 

Ballet Talks

The National Ballet invites you to attend the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Ballet Talk one hour before every show.

Our hugely popular Ballet Talks take place in R. Fraser Elliot Hall in the Four Seasons Centre one hour before every performance. All ticket holders are welcome. Seats for everyone!

Enhance your experience and learn more about our productions from Lindsay Fischer, Artistic Director, YOU dance/Ballet Master.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland explodes with bright ideas... full of visual delights inspired by the book” — The New York Times