The Dormouse in Chapter VII of The Annotated Alice (pgs. 93-95) gets the following footnote from Martin Gardner:
The British dormouse is a tree-living rodent that resembles a small squirrel much more than it does a mouse. The name is from the Latin dormire, to sleep, and has reference to the animal’s habit of winter hibernation. Unlike the squirrel, the dormouse is nocturnal, so that even in May (the month of Alice’s adventure) it remains in a torpid state throughout the day. In Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti, 1906, we are told that the dormouse may have been modeled after Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s pet wombat, which had a habit of sleeping on the table. Carroll knew all the Rossettis and occasionally visited them.
This is the second blog post in a series for the LCSNA called Gardner’s Annotations Hyperlinked, in which we employ the mighty power of the internet to illuminate, investigate, and of course provide links for the footnotes from The Annotated Alice.
The only dormouse native to the British Isles is the Hazel dormouse, which is indeed more closely related to a squirrel than to a mouse. (The suborder Sciuromorpha contains chipmunks, squirrels, and dormice. Mice and rats are muroids.) Although dormire in Latin does mean “to sleep,” it might not be directly related to the etymology of “dormouse.” The Wiktionary‘s etymology: “From Middle English dormous, of uncertain origin. Possibly from dor-, from Old Norse dár (‘benumbed’) + mous (‘mouse’). … Although the word has come to be associated as an Anglo-Norman derivative of Old French dormir (‘to sleep’), no such Anglo-Norman word is known to have existed,” and it cites the Random House Dictionary as its reference. (The dormousian association with sleepiness seems to go back centuries – the Elizabethans apparently rubbed dormouse fat on the soles of their feet to induce sleep, according to The Sleepyhead’s Bedside Companion by Sean Coughlan. How could an animal both nocturnal and hibernating have any other reputation? We posted a cute viral video of a snoring dormouse a few months ago here.)
As for Gardner’s one literary reference in his note, the Pre-Raphaelite memoir Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti (1906), it’s widely available and has been reprinted multiple times in the past decade. Google Books has several accessible copies of the text: Vol. I here; Vol. II here. It is true that C.L. Dodgson knew the Rossetti’s and would hang out with them sometimes. It is also true that Dante Gabriel Rossetti owned several wombats (and some dormice and other exotic pets), and that one beloved wombat would entertain at dinner parties. However, it’s impossible that Gardner read in that specific book that Rossetti’s wombat “may have” inspired Carroll’s dormouse, because it’s neither written there nor true. In Volume I of Some Reminiscences, William Michael Rossetti describes some of the “beasts” Dante Gabriel kept in his garden, after which he describes his indoor pets:
…they were my brother’s companions day by day, and the wombat would follow at the housemaid’s heels when she went upstairs to make the beds. An anecdote is current of the wombat, and I accept it as only somewhat exaggerated – not untrue. My brother had asked, as he pretty often did, several friends to dinner; he himself never smoked, but for the satisfaction of his guests he had provided a box of superior cigars. The dinner over, he proceeded to produce the box. The box was there, but the cigars were gone: the wombat had made a meal of the entire assortment.
Hilarious! The wombat ate some fancy cigars. Sounds like a good party (except for the shortage of tobacco). He then goes on to describe several drawings of wombats by Edward Burne-Jones he owned, and of poetry by Christina Rossetti which mentions wombats as well. (“When wombats do inspire / I strike my disused lyre.”) Carroll is not mentioned in Volume I. Neither is any dormouse nor any of the Alice books ever mentioned in either volume of Some Reminiscences. In Volume II, William Michael Rossetti has one uninspiring paragraph about Carroll:
One of the earliest of these [visiting authors] but I only saw him once or twice was the Rev. C. L. Dodgson, whom the English-speaking world knows under the name of Lewis Carroll. He was a skilful amateur photographer, and he took some few photographs of Dante Rossetti, and of other members of the family. He continued keeping up some little acquaintance with Christina till the close of her life, sending her his successive publications. My reminiscence of Mr. Dodgson is so slight and indeterminate that it would be vain to attempt any exactness of description. Suffice it to say that he impressed me mainly as belonging to the type of ” the University Man ” : a certain externalism of polite propriety, verging towards the conventional. I do not think he said in my presence anything ” funny ” or quaint.
The only mention of wombats in Volume II is a reference to his unsuccessful attempt to purchase one in Sydney.
So where did Martin Gardner learn that Rossetti’s wombat inspired Carroll’s Dormouse? I don’t know, but he didn’t invent the idea. That honor goes to the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. The artist’s grandson, Ford M. Hueffer (who changed his name to Ford Madox Ford and became a 20th Century novelist) wrote the book on Madox Brown in 1896: Ford Madox Brown: a record of his life and work. He also describes the Rossetti zoo and some legendary parties:
The beast that made the greatest impression, at least on Madox Brown, was the singularly inactive marsupial known as the wombat – an animal that seems to have exercised a latent fascination on the Rossettian mind. On high days and holiday banquets it occupied a place of honour on the épergne in the centre of the table, where, with imperturbable equanimity, it would remain dormant. On one occasion, however, it belied its character. Descending unobserved, during a heated post-prandial discussion, it proceeded in leisurely fashion to devour the entire contents of a valuable box of cigars, achieving that feat just in time for the exhaustion of the subject under consideration and consequent attention to things mundane.
If Madox Brown may be believed, the wombat of Rossetti was the prototype of the dormouse in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the author of which beloved work was a frequent visitor of Rossetti’s household at Chelsea. The ‘ Alice ‘ books exercised an even greater fascination over Rossetti and for that matter over Madox Brown than the historic wombat had done …
Note Ford’s subtle skepticism of his grandfather’s word. I found the final nail in the coffin to the Wombat-Dormouse theory in a 2003 lecture by Angus Trumble, the Harold White Fellow at the National Library of Australia, Canberra. Trumble adds some Australian local knowledge to his scholarship, in a talk called “Rossetti’s Wombat: A Pre-Raphaelite Obsession in Victorian England.”
…James McNeill Whistler invented a silly story about how the wombat had perished after eating an entire box of cigars. Ford Madox Brown thought that Rossetti’s habit of bringing the wombat to dinner and letting it sleep in the large épergne or centrepiece on the dining room table inspired the dormouse in the tea-pot incident at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is also impossible because Lewis Carroll wrote that chapter in 1863, and the novel with its famous illustrations by John Tenniel was published two years later in 1865. As my colleague David Marshall has also pointed out, either Rossetti’s épergne was enormous, or the wombat was dramatically small.
He says “impossible,” because his research shows that Dante Rossetti had bought the first of his pet wombats in 1869. I don’t know how big an épergne usually is, but dormice certainly fit more easily into teapots than wombats do. Do wombats fit in teapots? Do teapots fit in wombats?
Several final discoveries about cute animals owned by Pre-Raphaelites before we go. One of the earliest drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti was of a dormouse – he drew pictures of his pet dormouse named “Dwanging” when he was about six years old. It looks to me more like a cave painting than anything drawn by any pre-tween I know. In Dante Gabriel Rossetti: his family-letters, Vol. I, his brother also describes his pet hedgehog, which also hung out on the family dinner table. So Dante was into pets long before he acquired his own large collection of strange creatures as an adult. What became of the wombat? It died.
American artist James McNeill Whistler’s version of the story (from this early biography) has the wombat skeleton discovered in the cigar box. (A humongous cigar box?) I wouldn’t attempt to guess how Rossetti’s wombat actually died, but eating tobacco is extremely poisonous. According to the Wikipedia, “The LD50 of nicotine is 50 mg/kg for rats and 3 mg/kg for mice. 0.5-1.0 mg/kg can be a lethal dosage for adult humans, and 10 mg (0.1mg/kg) for children.” A cigar contains around 150 mg of nicotine. Wombats weigh between 20 and 35 kg. Eating even a single cigar would very likely kill a wombat. Again, I’m not trying to perpetuate the theory that Rossetti’s wombat died from eating cigars at the dinner party in question. But either William Michael Rossetti’s anecdote is more than “only somewhat exaggerated,” or it didn’t end well for the wombat.