“I have it on very good authority that a muse must have their heart broken six times before they can die.”
Alice Liddell was the muse for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But before the book was published, a rift opened between Carroll and the Liddell family. Also dubbed the “Liddell Riddle,” historians still speculate as to what happened to separate the famous author and his muse. Michelle Rene has imagined a beautiful and heart-breaking story of a special friendship and its unfortunate end. Told from the viewpoint of Alice herself, The Dodo Knight will transport you to Victorian England… and into the heart of a very special little girl.
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It was in late February of 1856 that we moved to our new home at Oxford. My father had been assigned a position as dean of Christ Church College, and we were to live in the lavish deanery on the campus grounds. My fondest memories were of that place, and still the mixed scent of old, yellowed pages with freshly trimmed gardens will recall the whimsy of my childhood. It is curious what might bring one back to a time and place in their history. I would always wrap myself up in the smells of libraries and gardens as though they were a warm blanket.
I had heard of Mr. Dodgson, of course, before we had been there long. My cousin Fredrika boasted that she had been sketched by "the most handsome and clever Mr. Dodgson", and my older brother Harry had gone out a few times rowing with the man. Harry was young and not yet skilled at the task, and Mr. Dodgson was kind enough to offer him lessons shortly after we had arrived on campus.
Harry and Fredrika told me much about Mr. Dodgson. Apparently, he was the cleverest man they had ever met. He actually liked to talk to children, a concept most of the adults I knew were not fond of. At least, it seemed that way. Surely Mother would dote over the babies, but I often caused her an uproar as I was supposed to be silent and well behaved, a chore I found challenging at times.
"Do your lessons. Sit up straight. Do not pout so. Desist that annoying prattle, Alice."
As soon as Mother employed Miss Prickett, our governess, she let her do the meddling while Mother took to the care of the house and garden. This seemed to relax her more, and she was more able to apply kind words to us since Miss Prickett was present for the discipline.
However, none of Mother's kindness, even on her more spirited days, equaled that of the rumors of Mr. Dodgson. Harry and Fredrika both spoke of games he manufactured himself or riddles he had ready for them every outing.
I saw Mr. Dodgson once before I actually met him in the spring. He was with a man about his age, perhaps a little younger, and they were standing before the Christ Church Cathedral with a box on stilts draped in a large cape. Later, I learned that this was a camera. At the time, I was completely befuddled by the scene.
Mr. Dodgson in his professor robes flipped up the cape and hid beneath it like Ina and I did to Father's robes when we were playing. He seemed to be fiddling around with something underneath, begging the younger man posing by the cathedral to hold perfectly still. I thought both men to be of a curious sort and continued to walk alongside Miss Prickett to avoid a good scolding, despite the urge to gawk.
Months later when the weather tuned from breezy to cold, the man came to our house and found it in a most disorderly state.
"Alice Liddell, return that teapot this instant!"
I had hidden myself away underneath the table clutching the teapot in question to my chest. It was a favorite teapot of mine with a small scene of ducks and rabbits painted on the belly. The horrid woman never used it, saying the spout poured terribly, but the instant she noticed its absence, she went on a rampage.
"Alice, where have you gone, child?"
She stomped past the table. I could see her heavy shoes beneath the table curtain as she passed. Miss Prickett was not an ugly woman, except when she was cross. By all accounts, she was handsome, with roundness in all the proper places. She had the look of a kind woman who would be warm to cuddle with on a cold day. On closer inspection, she was the type of woman who stomped like an elephant and roared when she was angry. Almost everything I did made her angry, it seemed.
I held the teapot close to me under the table. A tiny scratching sound came from within and then ceased. My body tensed, and I hoped Miss Prickett had not heard. A sudden rustling of the tablecloth spooked me, and I turned to see Edith's tiny face and wide eyes peering at me from the other side of the table.
"What you doing, Ally?"
She was only two years old at the time, so "Ally" was the only incarnation of my name she could say. I was only four, but to me and Edith, we were a world of time and knowledge apart. The tiny thing followed me everywhere.
"Hush you! I'm hiding from Pricks."
"I come too?"
"I'm not going anywhere. Just get in here before she sees you."
Little Edith smiled like a conspirator and crawled under the table with me, snuggling up to my right side. She clutched the crook of my arm.
"Do not make a sound," I whispered.
She nodded, and we huddled there together as Miss Prickett stormed past us again.
Just then, there came a rapping on the front door. Mother glided across the room to answer it, seemingly unaware of the drama playing out behind her in the dining room. She answered the door with her usual grace.
"Hello, Mr. Dodgson. Lovely to see you again. I will go tell my husband you are here," she chimed.
She floated away, leaving the man standing awkwardly in our receiving room directly across from the dining table where Edith and I hid.
I knew his name, we all did. Harry spoke of him often and his silly games. Edith perked at the sound of his name and crawled out from under the table to get a better look. I tried to grab her foot, but it was as if she had greased herself with butter. She wriggled out of my grasp and headed for the receiving room. Miss Prickett saw her, and I knew my cover was forfeit.
"Alice Liddell, are you under that table?"
She was angry, and I had one choice in the matter to avoid a scolding. I only hoped the man was as benevolent as Harry made him out to be. In a quick burst, I dashed out from beneath the table, so startling Miss Prickett that she tumbled over a nearby chair.
"Alice!" she wailed.
Not a step did I miss, even at the sound of my name. I ran through the hall, past Edith who was spying from behind a doorframe, and into the receiving room where Mr. Dodgson stood astonished. He was pristinely dressed, wearing a tall hat and crisp gray-and-black gloves. I looked into his blue eyes in a pleading way, holding up the teapot.
"Please do not let her take it," I said, nearly out of breath.
"Take what, my dear?"
I lifted the lid and held it out for him to look inside. He peeked in without hesitation to see a small, brown dormouse curled into a ball among various dried sticks and grasses. The tiny thing was asleep despite the raucous all around him. Mr. Dodgson smiled.
Miss Prickett burst into the room just as I replaced the lid and turned around to face her, the teapot clutched tightly to my chest. My mother was close behind her with a look of wonderment at all the commotion. Little Edith was still behind the doorframe, visibly trying not to laugh. I backed instinctively into the legs of Mr. Dodgson.
"What is happening here?" asked Mother, looking from me to Miss Prickett.
"Alice has stolen a teapot and decided to house vermin inside it," answered Miss Prickett, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Alice, what sort of business is this?"
I looked to the floor and back to my mother. "No one was using it." It was all I could manage. Vocabulary tends to leave children when they need it the most.
"Let me see," commanded Mother.
I tipped the teapot and removed the lid to show her the dormouse inside. Mother made a sour face and bade me to cover it again, but she did not seem particularly angry.
Miss Prickett looked about to burst. "I went to collect a teapot, to make the children's afternoon tea, and found this teapot hidden in Alice's bedroom with the foul rodent inside!"
Everyone looked to me again.
"She usually uses the one with the roses on it. I thought it would not be missed."
Miss Prickett scowled at me. I did not realize such a look could exist on such a young woman. I shrank back and found myself leaning into Mr. Dodgson's legs.
"If I m-m-may interject," he said shyly and with a slight stammer.
The women switched their gaze from me to him.
"Alice is just readying your t-t-teapot for latest fashion in the spring."
"Oh yes. Such a trend is this now in London that all fashionable houses have at least three t-t-teapots housing dd-dormice for the winter to be ready for the spring events. The little d-d-darlings are known to leave behind in the very p-p-porcelain a spice that cannot be reprod-d-duced in any way."
Miss Prickett looked astonished, and Mother eyed Mr. Dodgson suspiciously. I turned to look back up at him, and he smiled at me with a wink.
"I had no idea such a thing even existed. Who ever heard of rodent-spiced tea?" said Miss Prickett, amazed at my apparent knowledge of fashionable trends.
"I think it's a trend b-begun in India," offered Mr. Dodgson.
The rest of us knew it was a lot of nonsense, even Mother, and I tried not to giggle. Perhaps, Miss Prickett was unaccustomed to nonsense in adults and therefore, took anything a young scholar like Mr. Dodgson said at face value. It was not a nice trick for him to play, but she did have a mind to kill my little friend in the teapot, so I reckoned one evened out the other. I was sure Mother would end the charade any moment, but she proved me wrong by letting it play itself out before her. A knowing smile was our only clue that she approved of this game.
"How did you know of such a thing, Alice?"
"I heard of it at my cousin's house. They have two teapots filled with dormice tucked away in their parlor even now. Three mice per teapot each!"
The words flowed through me as though they were truth. I wondered where they had been when I needed them moments ago.
"There, you see. Alice is only making sure your house fashionable," said Mr. Dodgson with a bit more boldness.
Miss Prickett nodded, eyes still agog.
"Miss Prickett, I believe little Edith over there is in need of a snack. In fact, we might all like a little something right now. Please see to that with the cook," said Mother mildly.
The poor, stunned governess nodded and left the room to make her way to the kitchen. Mother turned back to us.
"My husband will receive you in his study, Mr. Dodgson," she said then looked directly at me. "And I expect that teapot to be scrubbed clean as soon as the mouse has vacated. Do you understand, Alice?"
"You are not frightened, Mrs. Liddell?" asked Mr. Dodgson. His upper lip quivered with the effort of concealing a stammer.
"Sir, with all due respect, I have four children, two before Alice. It would take a lot more than a rodent in a teapot to startle me," she said with a smile before she left the room.
He smiled at her, looking impressed.
As soon as she exited the room, I turned my attention to Mr. Dodgson. "Thank you."
"For what?" he asked, kneeling down to be closer to my height.
"For lying so that I might keep him."
"It is not a total lie. I am sure somewhere in the wide world there is a place that considers rodent-spiced tea to be all the rage. You are just ahead of what is fashionable."
He patted my head. It was a curious thing. I remember noticing it even then. The shy way he spoke, and that awful stammer of his seemed to diminish to nothing when the adults left the room. When it was only children about, he spoke clearly and without pause.
"I have a question?"
"What is your question, Little Alice?"
"Why must he sleep so? He seems to never wake, and even when I pet him, he only fidgets a little and goes back to sleep."
"That is because dormice hibernate this time of the year. He will probably sleep this way for months. I suggest putting more grass and leaves in there for him and maybe a few nuts if he gets hungry. Eventually, he will wake up and want to go back to a tree. You will need to let him go then, or else you will be a cruel lady indeed. Promise me you will let him go when it is time."
He stood to make his way to my father's study, but he turned to look back at me before he left me all alone.
"I will see you again, Miss Alice. Perhaps, to photograph you."
Thus began our adventures in wonderland together.CHAPTER 2
Such an odd fellow was this Mr. Dodgson, but I too was the odd sort. I had once heard a friend of my mother's, a relatively plain and simple woman, remark at the unnerving depth in my eyes.
"She seems more aware than most children, does she not?" My mother smiled at me the way she always did when adults spoke of her children without acknowledging their presence in a room. For all her faults, my mother was a woman who was just as aware as I was, and I had inherited my eyes from her.
"Alice is keenly aware of her presence in the world, Mrs. Greaves. Even if you are not."
I remember trying not to laugh at the joke, and Mrs. Greaves looked moderately offended. Her visits diminished after that encounter, but Mother did not seem to mind.
Therefore, when Mr. Dodgson, in all his odd ways, made his appearance in our lives, I was powerless against him. Grown people rarely regarded children, let alone spoke to them as though they were capable of conversation, but not Mr. Dodgson. He spoke often about the folly of dismissing children. He'd visit us in the garden behind our home when Pricks allowed us time outside, and we'd have lovely discussions about all sorts of things.
The first things I remember about the gentleman was that he adored games. Chess and croquet were among his favorites. He even invented games himself for all of us to play, going so far as to fashion game pieces and puzzles from wire and wood. The man always had small books of silly poetry and games with him. It was like having regular visits from Father Christmas. His books were fun, unlike the others for children at the time. There were no morals or lessons in them, only nonsense.
We joked that the first thing Pricks noticed about the man was his face and manner. Mr. Dodgson was a handsome man, as far as Ina explained handsome to me. She had said Mr. Dodgson was handsome because he wore his hair longer than was the style, and his face was asymmetrical. For some reason, that made him handsome.
Pretty was a far easier concept to grasp as a young girl. Girls were pretty. Even ugly little girls were pretty. Most ladies were pretty until they turned cross, and then, they really were not pretty anymore. Mother was pretty all the time. Yet handsome, it was an idea that was hard for me to pinpoint. To think of my brothers or my father as handsome seemed awkward and ridiculous.
Pricks seemed to think Mr. Dodgson was handsome. She laughed too hard at even his silliest rhymes and smiled like a crocodile whenever he looked her way. He never seemed to acknowledge her strange manner and chose instead to concentrate on whatever game we were playing. Rumor fluttered about the house for a time that Mr. Dodgson used us children as a way to court Pricks, but he dismissed this as ridiculous. He treated the rumors as though they were so below him, he needn't acknowledge their existence at all. I liked him even more for this and dubbed him handsome indeed.
Harry grew tired of playing with us, citing our silly, girlish games as the reason. It was a warm afternoon in the garden when Harry said as much and stomped off to find other companions with better games and conversation. Mother called after him about rudeness, but he did not respond. To my surprise, Mr. Dodgson did not care.
"Boys may go as they like and play. Give me girls as friends any day."
"You do not like boys?" I asked.
"They are fine when they are younger, but all too soon they grow up and bully. Girls are far more interesting company, don't you agree?"
"Of course," I said thinking of Harry and his recent tendency to pull my hair and squeal like a pig when I walked by.
"Let us not discuss such trivial things as boys and brothers when there is a game to enjoy."
We were playing at cards, and I was winning. I smiled at the delightfully strange man while Ina, exasperated with math, sighed dramatically into the open pages of her book. She was three years my senior and struggling with her math workbook.
"Such things as these figures are truly not worth my time. They make no sense at all," lamented Ina.
Pricks passed by with a strict look.
"You must do them, Lorina. I will help if you need, but you should learn them without help. The figures stick better if you think them up yourself."
"Who would want to? Who would wish to sit about all day and work math?"
Mother and Pricks sat upright then and regarded Mr. Dodgson with curious stares. A laugh was hiding just below Mother's lips.
"Why Ina, Mr. Dodgson is a math lecturer here at Christ Church. Didn't you know?"
In that moment I wished Harry had stayed, for poor Ina's face was that of horror too funny to be reproduced. No amount of effort on my part mimicking the scene later could ever match it.
"Oh Mr. Dodgson, I am so very sorry."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dodo Knight"
Copyright © 2019 Michelle Rene.
Excerpted by permission of Annorlunda Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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