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Jane Nethercott - Lewis Carroll Carvings & Connection - Ripon Cathedral

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Jane Nethercott – Lewis Carroll Carvings & Connection

Having grown up around Llandudno in North Wales, I was aware of that area’s connections with one of my favourite authors, Lewis Carroll. However, what I did not know about was the link he had to Ripon, especially Ripon Cathedral.

November 7, 2022

Article written by Jane Nethercott

Lewis Carroll’s father, Charles, had become a canon of Ripon Cathedral in 1852, and the author spent some time in the city as a young man.

As with any place that boasts a connection to Alice in Wonderland, none of it can be proved as the definitive inspiration for the novels. But a bit of research raises several questions which, in my opinion, give Ripon at least as much of a claim as Oxford and Llandudno to being part of that world. Read on and see what you think.

During the years Carroll was visiting Ripon, the cathedral was being restored by George Gilbert Scott, who restored the choir stalls to what may have been their original state. So, did the author get a close look at some of the beautiful carvings underneath the misericords in the choir stalls? One of them depicts a griffin (the Gryphon from Alice Through the Looking Glass, maybe) chasing a (white?) rabbit who subsequently disappears down a hole in the ground. Sounds familiar? And were the odd, little shrunken figures a possible inspiration for what Alice looks like after she drinks the potion that causes her to shrink?

Ripon Civic Society also speculated back in 2013 that Carroll may have been interested in the Anglo-Saxon crypt of the cathedral, especially the notches in the walls – did these show up as the bookshelves that Alice sees as she descends the rabbit hole? This suggestion takes a leap of imagination, but anyone who has read Carroll’s writing will know how fantastic his vision was. The society speculates that in the simple yet ancient architecture of the crypt, Carroll saw the far-distant past and timelessness. All speculation, of course, but another possible connection with Carroll.

Back in 2000, the British chapter of the Lewis Carroll Society discussed Ripon’s connection with Alice when they heard about the winding series of gypsum caves that were once accessible. Is this another inspiration for the author and Alice’s long fall into the rabbit hole?

Finally, was Alice actually based on local girl Mary Badcock – a blonde girl with long hair, rather than Alice Liddell? Carroll saw a portrait of Mary in a Ripon shop window and sent it to Sir John Tenniel, the illustrator of both ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’. While Alice shared many personality traits with Liddell, was her physical appearance taken from Badcock rather than Liddell?

So, was Ripon really the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland? We will never know but it seems the more you look, the story gets “curiouser and curiouser”. 

I look forward to finding out more in the future.

Further reading: 

Ripon in Wonderland
Anglo Saxon Attitudes
Alice in Yorkshireland
Alice in Wonderland at the V&A Museum