The Welsh seaside resort of Llandudno makes great play of its Lewis Carroll connection. In 1933, David Lloyd George unveiled a marble monument of The White Rabbit with a plaque stating “On this very shore during happy rambles with little Alice Liddell Lewis Carroll was inspired to write that literary treatise “Alice in Wonderland” which has charmed children for generations”.
Sir William Richmond, who painted a group portrait of the Liddell sisters against a background of the Great Orme (the headland which juts out from Llandudno into the bay), also stated that the family was entertained at Llandudno by Lewis Carroll reading aloud from the ‘Alice’ stories. When Alice, as an adult, was asked when Carroll had visited them, she said ‘Well, it cannot have been before 1862, because we were not there then’. The family had a holiday home, Penmorfa, built on West Shore in 1862 and spent several summers there before selling up in 1873. Two nearby rocks were apparently known as ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. Various other pieces of evidence were adduced which seemed to prove the case.
And yet, and yet, we have Sarah Stanfield, chairman of the Lewis Carroll Society, saying there is “absolutely no evidence that Lewis Carroll visited Llandudno”, despite plenty of people claiming he did so. She said: “He was a meticulous diarist, and there is no mention in his diaries that he came to the town. He does record visiting Anglesey as a small boy with his family – the journey took them three days from Daresbury in Cheshire. He was very taken with the Menai Bridge. He did own a Welsh-English Dictionary however, which is quite interesting.”
Of course, Carroll’s popularity worldwide, especially in places like Japan, ensured that the Conwy town would want to maximise its tourist potential. The conspicuous resin statues which now litter the town’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ trail, however, have prompted accusations of Disneyfication of the once-genteel resort.
And plans to add another 19 aluminium White Rabbit statues definitely upset local hoteliers.
The Liddells’ elegant holiday home was later extended and became the Gogarth Abbey Hotel – a haphazard confection or architectural gem (depending on your taste) right on the shore looking out to sea, which featured original paintings by accomplished artists on its panelling. It was demolished just a few years ago to put luxury flats on the site. The developer was instructed to keep the historic part intact, but guess what – they decided that it was unsafe, so down it came. One local resident managed to save many of the artworks which used to line the hotel lounge, and set up a blog and online shop selling memorabilia under the title ‘penmorfapaintings.co.uk’.
A book by Michael Senior, published in 2000, explored the ‘did he or didn’t he’ question. It included a photograph of the Liddell children on the steps of Penmorfa, with an adult male nearby. John Lawson-Reay, of Llandudno Civic Trust, is sure that the photograph of a man with the Liddell family in Llandudno is Carroll himself in about 1863, using an assistant (possibly the Liddells’ son Harry) to lift the lens cap and activate the exposure at a given sign. The 79-year old historian and photographer told the ‘Daily Post’ that Lewis Carroll’s style when photographing buildings was clearly shown here, with the the figures being arranged by the photographer in a way which Lawson-Reay says is one of Carroll’s trade marks. “The three Liddell girls are dressed up in their party dresses (this is midwinter and the Christmas holidays) and posed as if on a stage. The man who is also ‘on stage’ is I am sure, Lewis Carroll himself. His dress is that of man about town. Light coloured trousers, clearly not a working man. He is not just standing there he is posing. The director, as it were!”
Senior’s book, which I have not yet read, apparently – spoiler alert – treads a middle ground by concluding that Lewis Carroll probably did visit, but that the stories were invented elsewhere. The whole saga seems to be an object lesson in how difficult it is to track the truth down once vested interests intervene and money becomes involved. Perhaps the saddest part of the whole affair is the loss of Penmorfa, a beautiful and original building in itself and the town’s only tangible, material connection with anyone who knew Alice’s creator, which in the end seemed to matter rather less than some monstrous statues. The marble White Rabbit statue, having been vandalised, is now in a cage.
© Foxoles 2018