The Beggar Maid
THE MOST INFLUENTIAL MUSE OF ALL TIME by C. M. Rubin
Throughout history, the muse has provided an essential element required to inspire and motivate artists to create their very best work. From Manet’s Victorine Meurent, to Dali’s Gala Diakonova, to Lennon’s Yoko Ono - the complex psychology of the special connection between artist and muse has been discussed and debated in terms of its importance in the overall creative process. Then there are the muses that continue to influence and promote the legacy of that art throughout the course of their lifetimes and long afterwards.
In the lives of the great muses, there has never been a muse more recognized for the role she played as inspiration than that of Alice Liddell in the creation of Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll’s) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. On many occasions, Lewis Carroll reminded his followers that his inspiration had come from a 10 year old girl, the magical Alice Liddell, who had encouraged his story telling for years, and in particular the story he told about Alice in Wonderland during a summer day’s picnic on July 4, 1862. The real Alice was the daughter of Henry Liddell, the author of the celebrated Greek English Lexicon and the powerful Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, where Dodgson taught mathematics. After hearing the story, Alice was continously persistent that Dodgson write it down for her, which he eventually did. He ultimately presented it to her (hand written and hand illustrated) as a Christmas gift 18 months later. In 1883, Carroll stated clearly in a letter to Alice’s mother that without Alice, he “might possibly never have written at all.”
Years before that golden afternoon, Dodgson was hired as Liddell family photographer to take portraits of Alice and her siblings. No picture taken by Dodgson (who became one of the most respected child photographers of his day) is more famous than his photograph of Alice — the portrait of Alice Liddell as the Beggar Maid. Alfred Lord Tennyson declared it the most beautiful photograph that he had ever seen. Indeed, it was then and still is today, one of the most famous photographs of all time. The gifted model, after all, was exceptionally beautiful, with an intensity and maturity that seems surreal for a child aged only seven at the time. She was a girl capable of inspiring a previously unpublished children’s book author to write the greatest children’s story of all time.
As the books became more famous, so did the author, and so did Alice Liddell. During her teenage years, her beauty and fame inspired Julia Margaret Cameron’s acclaimed series of photographs entitled Alethea (1872). As a wife and mother, eminent writers and artists would visit her home in Hampshire, England to meet the Alice of Wonderland fame. In 1883, Alice gave Carroll permission to publish the original manuscript given to her as a Christmas gift, providing that the proceeds were given to children’s hospitals. This led to Alice becoming even more engaged as a spokesperson both for these new causes and the Alice books. In 1932, the President of Columbia University in New York City honored Alice in front of the world as “the moving cause of this truly noteworthy contribution to English literature.”
There are over 20,000 books, films, operas, plays and video games based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It is estimated that over 8 billion people have read or seen presentations of the Alice books. Lewis Carroll is behind only the Bible and Shakespeare in the number of quotations from the Alice books that appear in everyday published discourse. In addition to the new adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll’s and Liddell’s lives continue to inspire numerous new books, works of art, and film projects. In my mind, it is this ongoing fascination with not just the books, but the story behind the story, that make Liddell the most influential muse of all time.
Portrait of Alice - Julia Margaret Cameron