Everyone knows someone who exhibits the particular brand of obtuseness exhibited by the dormouse at the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—particularly if you have anything to do with academia. The dormouse’s rambling tale of three sisters living in a treacle well is replete with double entendres and bewildering semantic reversals that leave Alice perplexed.
`Once upon a time there were three little sisters,’ the Dormouse began in a great hurry; `and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well—’
`What did they live on?’ said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
`They lived on treacle,’ said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
`They couldn’t have done that, you know,’ Alice gently remarked; `they’d have been ill.’
`So they were,’ said the Dormouse; `very ill.’ …
The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, `It was a treacle-well.’
`There’s no such thing!’ Alice was beginning very angrily, but the Hatter and the March Hare went `Sh! sh!’ and the Dormouse sulkily remarked, `If you can’t be civil, you’d better finish the story for yourself.’
`No, please go on!’ Alice said very humbly; `I won’t interrupt again. I dare say there may be one.’
`One, indeed!’ said the Dormouse indignantly. However, he consented to go on. `And so these three little sisters—they were learning to draw, you know—’
`What did they draw?’ said Alice, quite forgetting her promise.
`Treacle,’ said the Dormouse, without considering at all this time.
Alice did not wish to offend the Dormouse again, so she began very cautiously: `But I don’t understand. Where did they draw the treacle from?’
`You can draw water out of a water-well,’ said the Hatter; `so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well-eh, stupid?’
`But they were in the well,’ Alice said to the Dormouse, not choosing to notice this last remark.
`Of course they were’, said the Dormouse; `—well in.’
This answer so confused poor Alice, that she let the Dormouse go on for some time without interrupting it.
`They were learning to draw,’ the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; `and they drew all manner of things–everything that begins with an M–’
`Why with an M?’ said Alice.
`Why not?’ said the March Hare.
Alice was silent.
The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: `—that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness—you know you say things are “much of a muchness”—did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?’
`Really, now you ask me,’ said Alice, very much confused, `I don’t think—’
`Then you shouldn’t talk,’ said the Hatter.
This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off; the Dormouse fell asleep instantly, and neither of the others took the least notice of her going, though she looked back once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her: the last time she saw them, they were trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.
Criticism on Alice’s Adventures makes much of the almost violent breakdown in logic exemplified in this scene. Linguistics scholars in particular have written some very clever things about the topic. However, much of the writing I’ve seen on this exchange ignores the fact that the Liddell sisters, for whom Alice’s Adventures was told and then written, would probably have been aware of the existence of a REAL treacle well.
It’s well known that Charles Dodgson invented the story of a girl called Alice who went looking for adventure while on a boat trip up the Isis with dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell and his three daughters. They travelled by boat from Folly Bridge near Christ Church, upstream to Godstow about five miles away. En route they would have passed the village of Binsey, home to an original treacle well.
As much as I love the idea of treacle bubbling up from the earth, a treacle well has little to do with sugary molasses. Treacle is a Middle English word from Old French triacle meaning an antidote against venom. An example of this usage can be found in the in the 1549 edition of the Bible, in which Jeremiah 8:22 was translated as “Is there no tryacle [treacle] in Gilead?” So the holy wells visited for their curative properties in the early modern period became known in England as treacle wells.
The churchyard of St Margaret’s church in Binsey, contains a treacle well ‘made to flow by the prayers of St Frideswide’. For a time this was one of the most famous treacle wells in England. Because Oxford’s patron saint, Frideswide was associated with childbirth, as was St Margaret of Antioch for whom the Binsey church is dedicated, the treacle well became a site of pilgrimage for women seeking protection and help in conception and pregnancy. Henry VIII brought Katherine of Aragon to the well to pray for a son.
St Frideswide also has a connection to Christ Church (her shrine is located in the chapel of Christ Church Cathedral), and the treacle well was thus intimately woven into the fabric of the cultural world inhabited by Dodgson and the Liddle sisters. So the treacle well was a very tangible thing which in a way makes the dormouse’s tale even funnier and more clever than one might initially realise.