Everyone knows of the Mitford girls – and the Mitford girls knew everyone. There were few celebrities of the early twentieth century that at least one of the Mitfords had not met. One is less inclined to think of Sydney Redesdale (née Bowles) in those terms, yet she also knew an assortment of the famous and colourful people of the time, including Lewis Carroll, the nom de plume of Charles Dodgson.
Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Sydney Bowles was not born when the book was published, in 1865, but her father, Thomas Bowles, was a friend of Charles Dodgson. Remaining in touch with Dodgson, he naturally took an interest in his friend’s offspring.
In May 1891, when Sydney was eleven-years-old, Dodgson sent her a letter, and enclosed was a copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. Perhaps, given that her birthday was in May, it was a birthday present from the author. From the tone of the letter, it is evident that Sydney had not met Dodgson, for he writes that he ‘didn’t know of your “existence” before ‘hear[ing] that you had sent me your love!’
Formerly a mathematics tutor at Cambridge before finding fame as a novelist, Dodgson had a predilection for young girls. Having met Mary Prickett, he was introduced to her three charges Ina, Alice (the inspiration for his novel) and Edith, where he visited the Liddell family home and photographed the girls without their mother’s consent. He would go on to take nude photographs of the then fourteen-year-old Ina – again, this was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was also fairly common in the Victorian era for an adult male to take a fancy or become engaged to a female child (perhaps in her teens) and wait until she was of age to marry. However, his fixation with the eleven-year-old Alice was a daring one, even in those days. A book, The Looking Glass House, written on the subject of the Liddells, Dodgson and their governess Mary Prickett, who loved him and saw her charges as her rivals in love, was written by Alice Liddell’s granddaughter, Vanessa Tait. On the subject of letters to his ‘child friends’, it should be noted that Dodgson’s love letters to Alice were discovered by her mother, hidden in her dollhouse. His visits and association with the family came to an abrupt end.
Back to his correspondence with Sydney, the letter is fairly unsettling by today’s standards. He writes: ‘If only I had known you were existing, I would have sent you heaps of love, long ago. And, now I come to think about it, I ought to have sent you the love, without being so particular about whether you existed or not.’ Perhaps, a lonely man himself, he felt an infinity with Sydney: a young, motherless girl, who spent her childhood on her eccentric father’s yacht, sailing the Mediterranean and the Orient. Whatever the nature of his feelings and the truth behind his motives of befriending Sydney, it amounted to nothing.
The letter is dated May 22 1891, and is reproduced in Sophia Murphy’s book, The Mitford Family Album. On the facing page is a picture of an eight-year-old Sydney Bowles, looking very much like Dodgson’s romantic vision of Alice. The letter and book – which Dodgson notes is ‘the book just as I first wrote it, with my own pictures’ – seem just another example of the Mitford way of being, quite effortlessly, in the thick of every interesting event.
Kathy Hillwig lives in eastern Kentucky. Her dream holiday would be a week at Chatsworth, drinking tea and binge-reading the sisters’ correspondence.