ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Lady Pleasance Smith (née Reeve) lived in the house at 29 Surrey Street, Norwich, for forty years. This house is the subject of this series of posts in my blog. In her later life, when she was living in Lowestoft as a widow, Lady Pleasance’s great niece Alice Liddell was born in Westminster in 1852. The little girl was to become the Alice who inspired Lewis Carroll’s great work, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. Lady Pleasance was in correspondence with the Liddell family from the time of her niece Lorina’s engagement in 1845. Alice Pleasance Liddell was christened with Pleasance as her second name after her Great Aunt. Lady Pleasance was childless, so she took a close interest in her niece Lorina and her offspring. Of particular interest to her was the eldest son, Harry Liddell, although to us it will always be Alice.
There is a collection of over 200 letters written by Lady Pleasance in the library at Christchurch College in Oxford which reveals her to have been a great correspondent. The letters were written to Alice’s mother Lorina (née Reeve). Lady Pleasance was well read, taking the Times on a regular basis and reading many other journals too. She would discuss current affairs and politics such as Cabinet changes. She was liberal in her attitudes even as an old woman. She met fears of the dangerous tendencies of modern science with the remark, ‘I am for inquiry.’ Lady Pleasance Smith made the acquaintance of many churchmen and academics throughout her life. Her niece and nephew-in-law’s university and church acquaintances stimulated her correspondence. Her domestic concerns, such as the purchase of a new dinner service, are of greater interest to us, who of course are especially keen to learn of her house in Norwich.
The Liddells lived from 1855 at Christchurch, where the head of the family was the Dean of the cathedral (which is also the college chapel); before then Alice’s father Henry George Liddell had been Headmaster of Westminster School. The family lived in the Deanery at Christchurch until 1891. Lady Smith had died in 1877 at the age of 104. She kept writing almost until the end of her life, although with her sight failing this was a struggle.
At Oxford the Liddells became friends of their fellow Christchurch don, the Mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He is better known today by his pen-name Lewis Carroll. The book Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland was published in 1865 although only in America; Carroll thought the illustrations by John Tenniel were not of a high enough print quality for publication in this country! It was reprinted and published in England in 1866.
The book had arisen following a boat trip across Port Meadow three years earlier. The story which he told Alice Liddell as they rowed upstream to Godstow was later written down as we know it today.
As Lady Pleasance got older her celebrity increased on account of her great age. On her 99 birthday one of her cards was from Alice, by then a young lady in her 20s. Lady Pleasance supported her relatives in their pursuit of reform of the University’s outdated rules. For example it was not until the late 1870s that teaching staff were allowed to marry; it is an odd fact that this ancient restriction continued to apply to university lecturers for hundreds of years after the Reformation. Luckily for Liddell this restriction did not apply to churchmen, and so the Dean was able to take up his university appointment.
Although she had loyally supported her husband in his Unitarian beliefs during his lifetime, even to the extent (it is said) of jointly writing hymns with him for use in the Octagon Chapel in Norwich, as a widow she appears to have reverted to a more Anglican frame of mind. As a result her husband was interred in the family tomb at St Margaret’s church in Lowestoft where she too was eventually interred, and among her closest correspondents were leading Church of England theologians.
When she moved to Lowestoft it was to Crown House at 55 The High Street, a very similar Georgian house to 29 Surrey Street. It is only 3 storeys high, and has a less imposing entrance. During her widowed years in the Suffolk town of her birth besides being a benefactor of the poor she was a patron of the arts, particularly Lowestoft china.
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