ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Lady Pleasance Smith (née Reeve) lived in the house in 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). She was well read, taking the Times regularly and reading other journals, and her interests were wide-ranging. She would discuss current affairs such as the Cabinet changes and she was liberal in her attitudes even as an old woman. She 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 he 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, although 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 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 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 not of a high enough quality for publication in this country! It was reprinted and published in England in 1866.The book arose out of 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. Throughout her life Lady Pleasance was a forward thinking woman, saying of new ideas “I am in favour of inquiry”. She 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; luckily for Liddell this restriction did not apply to churchmen.
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, as a widow she appears to have reverted to a more Anglican frame of mind. 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 years in the Suffolk town she was known as a benefactor of the poor and a patron of Lowestoft china.
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