Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 15:30 GMT, Thursday, 8 July 2010 16:30 UK
The governess that inspired Lewis Carroll's Red Queen
By Mark Davies
BBC Oxford contributor

Mary Prickett
Mary Prickett was an influence for the Red Queen in 'Alice in Wonderland'

Lewis Carroll famously included real Oxford people, events, and locations in his children's books.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872) are filled with such examples.

But because he never revealed the true inspirations for his imaginative fantasies there has been endless speculation ever since.

Alice herself was Alice Liddell (1852-1934), daughter of the Dean of Christ Church.

Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson (1832-1898), was a mathematics don there.

The closest Carroll ever came to identifying the models for any of his other characters was after 'Alice' made its theatrical debut in 1886.

Then he referred to the Red Queen from Looking-Glass as 'the concentrated essence of all governesses', and there can be little doubt that it was Alice's own governess he had largely in mind.

She was a young woman called Mary Prickett (1832-1920), who served the Liddell family from their first arrival in Oxford in 1856 until 1870.

Prickett is an unusual and locally distinctive name, with a particular presence in the village of Binsey, a little to the north of Oxford.

This has led many writers to assume that Mary Prickett was from the village, and furthermore, because the 'treacle well' of the 'Mad Tea-Party' in Wonderland is based on an actual well in Binsey, that she was the source of this information, or the reason for its inclusion.

Carroll also seemed to have included some additional clues to Mary Prickett's supposed Binsey associations in his writing.

In the early editions of Looking Glass, the Rose calls the Red Queen 'one of the thorny kind'.

This, seemingly, was both an allusion to 'Pricks', the Liddell sisters' nickname for their governess, and also a pun on 'Thornbury', the Saxon name for the site of the Binsey well.

Christ Church connection

At Mary Prickett's baptism in 1832 her father James described himself as a 'gentleman' living in Cowley Road.

St Margaret's Church
St Margaret's Church is the site of the Binsey 'treacle well'

By the time of the 1841 Census, he had moved with his family to live in the home of his 85-year-old mother, Martha, in one of the grand terraced townhouses of Beaumont Street in central Oxford.

He was by then a 'college servant', and remained in this employment all his working life, specifically at Trinity College in 1861.

But by this time the family was living in very much more modest accommodation (now demolished) in Floyd's Row, a few minutes' walk from Christ Church, where his daughter looked after Alice Liddell and her sisters.

It is not known if Alice ever visited the Binsey 'treacle well' herself - although it does seems likely, if only because of the village's connection with her father's college of Christ Church.

Indeed, the Christ Church connection seems much more likely to hold the key to Lewis Carroll's familiarity with the location.

From 1857 until 1891 the curate was Thomas Prout, a Christ Church colleague and friend (and possibly the origin of the Dormouse, who actually tells the tale of the treacle well at the 'Mad Tea Party').

Prout restored St Margaret's well in 1874, perhaps in response to new interest in it following the publication of Looking-Glass in 1872.

Mary Prickett left service with the Liddells to marry, at the age of 40, a wealthy Oxford wine merchant called Charles Foster in 1871.

Almost simultaneously, Charles and Mary Foster took over Oxford's most prestigious coaching inn, The Mitre, in the High Street.

It was to be Mary's home for the rest of her life.

Surviving her husband by more than 30 years, she continued to run The Mitre until her death in 1920 - a tenancy of very nearly half a century!

Evidently Mrs Mary Foster remembered with fondness her years as governess to the many Liddell children.

Caryl Hargreaves, Alice's son, recalled that when Lord Rosebury, a friend of the Liddells, was permitted to stay in Mary's own quarters at The Mitre one year, he had been bemused to discover that the rooms were full of photographs of Alice and the rest of the family (many no doubt taken by that pioneering photographer Lewis Carroll himself).

Unaware of their earlier connection, 'curiouser and curiouser' might well have been the phrase which crossed his mind!

Mark Davies is the author of Alice in Waterland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford and A Towpath Walk in Oxford.

Alice - The girl behind the myth
02 Jul 09 |  History
The women of Oxford’s waterways
03 Jun 10 |  Oxford


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific