Alice still shapeshifting 150 years after Wonderland
An exhibition in the British Library traces how the story and its characters quickly took on a life of their own after the publication of the book in 1865, inspiring spin-off merchandising, music and early film.
Visitors to the show in London wander through large distorted mirrors and illustrations that walk them through the plot of the book, before discovering the history of how it became a classic.
James Devine, 66, spoke rapturously of the book as he remembered reading it as a child in 1950s Glasgow.
“It’s fascinating. It takes you into another world. I loved it, particularly the Cheshire Cat,” Devine told AFP. “You get carried away with it.”
The exhibition begins with how the story was born: on a summer’s day in Oxford in 1862, when Charles Dodgson, a maths tutor who took the pen name Lewis Carroll, took a boat trip with 10-year-old Alice Liddell and two of her sisters, and told them a story.
At the heart of the exhibits is a display of the original leather-bound manuscript later written down by Carroll by hand with 37 careful illustrations and presented to Alice in 1865 with the dedication “a Christmas gift to a dear child, in memory of a summer day”.
Liddell sold the manuscript for a record price in 1928 to an American collector, but it was gifted to the British Museum after World War II “as an expression of thanks to a noble people who kept Hitler at bay for a long period single-handed”.
A book of the original manuscript, with its old title “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” has been published this year in a luxury edition by French publishing house Les Saint Peres to mark the 150th anniversary.
Dodgson revised the manuscript, taking out personal passages and adding new sections for publication under his pen name “Lewis Carroll”.
“Lewis Carroll was as charming, imaginative and attractive as the tutor Charles Dodgson was boring, dull and stern,” said Belgian writer Amelie Nothomb who wrote the introduction to the newly published early version.
The book came out in November 1865 with illustrations by artist John Tenniel that were to make the story and its characters iconic.
“It’s now part of our cultural consciousness,” said Helen Melody, a curator of the exhibition.
“The text of the story is very rich but doesn’t contain much description… there’s a lot of room in the story for different interpretations, different ways to imagine.”
– ‘There’s darkness in there’ –
The exhibition makes clear how central the visual interpretation of Carroll’s world has been throughout the decades, tracing how Alice has been re-imagined many times over and continues to shapeshift.
Alice was depicted as a cherubic redhead by illustrator Mabel Lucie Attwell, and with the true dark hair of the real Liddell by others, in images alternately sweet and sinister, many coloured by the context of the time, such as the world wars.
Several visitors to the show recalled that the book frightened them when they were children.
Alicia Phyall, 24, a pink-haired theatre assistant from Kent, got an Alice-themed tattoo on her leg in honour of the 150th anniversary.
“I just love it,” she said. “It’s so different. It’s scary, I remember when my dad read it to me first I was terrified.”
“It’s not all sweetness and light, there’s darkness in there,” added her mother Helen Merchant, 58.
The blonde Alice with the blue dress began to emerge as the definitive image in the first half of the 20th century, and was cemented by Disney in their 1951 animated film that introduced the work to new readers.
Visitors can explore decades of artists’ inspiration from the work, from a 1903 silent film, to art and music such as Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” in the psychedelic 1960s, to a modern-day video game.
Due to the quick success of the book after its initial publication, Carroll began to work on a sequel and helped develop merchandise linked to the book like teacups, toys and biscuit tins.
The tradition is continued with a pop-up souvenir shop linked to the exhibition, filled with Alice-themed dolls, bow ties and jewellery.