Artwork and Article by Lucy Zhang, US East Blogger jaBlog!
A brick house stands in Guildford, overlooking a stretch of verdant grass on Castle Hill. The large building is not grandiose but quite modest with its antiquated structure that contrasts 21st century architecture. The ambience exudes a strange sort of calm—the quiet potential of a town. Yet, somewhere here, a mind was weaving youth and adventure together into a wild story. Indeed, on the riverbank at Millmead, motionless statues remain an unchanging monument to a special adventure: a girl listens to her sister tell a story while she sees the White Rabbit suddenly dart passed into a hole.
The brick house is called “The Chestnuts.” It was leased to Charles Lutwidge Dodgon for his six married sisters in 1868. Just three years prior, Dodgon’s first novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was published. It was a huge success. The inspiration for the novel came from one afternoon, when Dodgon was rowing a boat with his friend Robinson Duckworth and the three children of Oxford’s dean Henry Liddell. To entertain the children, Dodgon told the three Liddell sisters a story about a girl named Alice. Ten-year-old Alice Liddell was ecstatic that the main character was named after herself and begged Dodgon to write down the story. And so, the popular tale was to become a book under Dodgon’s pen name, Lewis Carroll.
It was in Guildford that Dodgon wrote his novel’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Perhaps only Dodgon would be able to say what his true inspiration was and why he chose to write—or, for lack of a better word, create—an adventure that would withstand the wearing of time and shape children’s imaginations. Nevertheless, it was still his choice to write in Guildford. An inevitable connection exists between writer and the writing location. Did Dodgon ever envision his story coming to life with a bored, young Alice sitting with her sister down by the riverbank of Millmead? Did he see a beautiful garden on the other side of a miniscule door? It was from here that he came up with one of the most brilliant nonsense poems, Jabberwocky.
Guildford was the home of these literary innovations. Perhaps, you could even say it was what brought the sequel into being. Something about the placid nature that it is today seems to enhance the potential for excitement. Magnificent events could be taking place beneath the surface, hidden by the trees and nature. Or Dodgon could have been writing in a noisy environment with six sisters bustling about. In the end, Dodgon’s affinity for youth and children probably overcame any distractions. Only with children did he overcome his natural stutter and was able to speak lucidly. Can we say that only in Guildford was he able to write Through the Looking-Glass? We will never know.
Guildford remains the novel’s birthplace and is a significant reminder of the adventures of Alice. If Dodgon did visualize his novel’s events unfolding in this calm, mysterious location, it is now more than visualization. In the castle grounds adjacent to the wall of Dodgon’s family garden, Alice peers through the looking glass with her youthful curiosity, frozen in motion—a testimony to her story.
If you are coming to the Junior Authors Writers Conference in Guildford, you can visit these historical literary sights. Click to view photos on the Visit Surrey website.