“Curiouser and Curiouser”

Alice at 150

By Ellen Gilbert

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s (a.k.a. Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and there are many opportunities to celebrate the work, which along with its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, is quoted (and misquoted) almost as frequently as Shakespeare. The celebrations will be world-wide; here are some that will take place close to home.

One of the most remarkable exhibitions undoubtedly will be at the Morgan Library and Museum (225 Madison Avenue, NYC), where Carroll’s original manuscript, on loan from the British Library, will be on display from June 26 through October 11. Representations of Carroll’s inspiration, Alice Liddell, the daughter of Oxford dean Henry Liddell, will include a hand-colored photograph of her by the author, along with her writing case and purse. Original drawings and hand-colored proofs of John Tenniel’s illustrations will be on view, along with Carroll’s diary entry from July 4, 1862, the day of the now-famous boating excursion when he began entertaining the Liddell sisters with the story of Alice. Elaborate story telling came easily to Carroll; the eldest of 11 children, he had often charmed his siblings with clever stories and games.

The British Library manuscript of Alice will resurface in Philadelphia from October 14 through 19 at The Rosenbach Museum & Library (2008-2020 Delancey Place). Down the Rabbit Hole, the Rosenbach’s celebration of 150 years of Alice will include an exhibition running from October 14, 2015 through March 27, 2016, with special “hands-on” tours on May 22 and August 28, from 3 to 4 p.m.

Wonderland figured prominently in last winter’s Grolier Club (47 East 60th Street, NYC) exhibition, One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature. “Unprecedented in its breadth of fantasy, wordplay, nonsense verse, and mathematical puzzling Alice invites interpretations on multiple levels, engaging generations of children and scholars alike,” curators noted. Alice returns to the Grolier, this time as the main attraction in a September 26 through November 21 exhibition (and October 7-8 colloquium) on translations of Alice. The list of translations of Alice—it’s been told and retold in about 100 languages is daunting, and it will be interesting to see what turns up at the Grolier: will they include the 1934 Afrikaans edition, Avonture van Alida in Towerland? The Dutch Lize’s Aveonturen in het Wonderland, published in 1874. The 1923 Russian translation by Vladimir Nabokov (using a pseudonym) Perhaps U-Alice Ezweni Lezimanga, a 1982 Zulu rendition, will be on display, or one of the many Polish translations published between 1910 and 2010.

Alice Wonderland 3

That Columbia University’s Butler Library will host an exhibition of Alice memorabilia from September 4 through December 4, seems appropriate. In 1932 Alice Liddell, now Mrs. Alice Hargreaves, was invited by Columbia to mark the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s birth. The 1985 film Dreamchild, with a script by Dennis Potter and starring Coral Browne as the older Mrs. Hargreaves and Ian Holm as a fairly tormented Lewis Carroll, imagines this event.

New York University’s Parodies, Spinoffs, and Flat Alice at the Fales Library from September 21 through October 3 includes “continuations and strange books that emanated from Alice,” as well as ephemera (the “flat” part). “One can see how the book has been used as a taking off point for further exploration of a thousand points of light or in some cases dark,” the curators note. On October 11, NYU will host (also at Fales Library) an “Alice Palooza” day of video games, comics, movies, anime, cosplay (costume play), and manga.


The question of whether or not the two Alice books are appropriate for children remains mercifully unresolved, though these days it may actually be easier to find Random House and Signet Classic editions of Alice in the adult literature sections of American bookstores. Although some may scoff at the 1993 Dover edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this basic utilitarian paperback costs all of about $3, and contains the unabridged, slightly corrected text as published by The Macmillan Co., N.Y., 1898, along with all of Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations from that edition, and a new, specially prepared introductory note. For enlightenment about all things Alice, Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice is generally agreed to be the go-to source.

For many, of course, the Tenniel illustrations are ne plus ultra. Writer Susan E. Meyer observes that while over 100 artists (and counting) have attempted to create illustrations for Alice, “none has supplanted the original version by John Tenniel whose pictures appear in simple harmony with the prose, as if words and images were created by one hand to form the perfect union.” In truth, the author and illustrator were actually often at odds with each other. Carroll had only grudgingly agreed that the illustrations he himself had created weren’t good enough for publication, and, as a result, he became what one observer described as “a tyrant to his professional illustrators.”

Not everyone endorses Tenniel’s supremacy. “Alice’s curious world is one that inspires interpretation but defies description,” observes book collector Cooper Edens. “As a result, the illustrations the story has inspired are rich, diverse and there is no singular vision of Wonderland.” A recent edition of Maria Popova’s always-intriguing Brain Pickings newsletter included a generous sampling of alternative visions.

The 800-pound elephant in the room is, of course, the question of whether or not Carroll was a pedophile. Perhaps the wisest course to take is to follow critic Alexander Woollcott’s suggestion that “those of us whose own memories of childhood are inextricably interwoven with all the gay tapestry of Alice in Wonderland would rather leave unexplored the shy, retreating man who left so much bubbling laughter in his legacy to the world.” Joyce Carol Oates, who has spoken of the profound effect that reading Alice had on her as a young child, also believes that “the life of the artist can be detached from the life of the ‘art.’”

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Those who prefer a cinematic celebration of Alice’s anniversary at home have over two-dozen film adaptations to choose from. The earliest was made in 1905 just 37 years after the novel was written, and was recently restored by the BFI (British Film Institute) National Archive. Eight minutes survive of the original twelve-minute production, which was directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow.

At least one writer has pointed out that the 2010 Tim Burton version starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Burton’s then partner Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, had a precedent in this earlier effort in which Hepworth cast his wife as the Red Queen. (He himself appeared as the frog footman; the Cheshire Cat was played by a family pet.)

AliceThere’s the star-studded 1933 Paramount version featuring Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, and W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty; the good old Disney version from 1951; or Jonathan Miller’s 1966 BBC adaptation. While it irked traditionalists when it was first released, this Alice has since become a cult classic and no wonder: before he wrote Dreamchild Dennis Potter wrote this script; the music is by Ravi Shankar, and the stars include Peter Cook, Peter Sellers, Alan Bennett, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and Eric Idle.

For sheer weirdness there is the Czechoslavakian filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s 1990 Neco z Alenky (Something from Alice), which combines live action with stop motion animation. “Mr. Švankmajer treats his source less as a bedtime story than a font of free-associational fantasy,” observed The New York Times when a video of the movie was released in 2014.

As for Tim Burton’s Alice, movie reviewer Manohla Dargis was perplexed by it. “Mr. Burton has done his best work with contemporary stories, so it’s curious if not curiouser that he’s turned his sights on another 19th-century tale,” she wrote. “Perhaps after slitting all those throats in his adaptation of Sweeney Todd, he thought he would chop off a few heads.”

New York Public Library at Lincoln Center is planning a five-week run of a number of Alice films, including some real rarities.

Those into cutting-edge technology will be glad to know that there’s an Alice App cut available. It includes animated collages along with “optional narration and plenty of hands-on opportunities to interact with the characters, like making Alice grow taller or playing a round of flamingo croquet with the Queen of Hearts.”