Thursday, 24 September 2015

A Century and a Half of Wonderland

One hundred and fifty years after the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - perhaps the first great classic of children's literature - Catriona Troth examines its history, its mythology and its legacy.



We moved around a lot when I was a child. As a result, we had few relics of parents’ childhoods. One exception was my mother’s copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, bound in navy-blue linen with gold lettering, and including the original Tenniel illustrations.

I loved that book. I loved the way it played with words, like a cat playing with a ball of wool. I loved its surrealism, quite free of the moralising nastiness of other Victorian favourites such as (gawd’elpus) Strewlpeter. And I loved the way that the text danced around the illustrations, weaving the two together in a way that modern authors and illustrators like Cressida Cowell and Nick Sharratt have taken to a whole new level, but which must have been revolutionary in the 1860s.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (the real name of Lewis Carroll) was an unlikely candidate to become one of the lions of children’s literature. A mathematics don at Oxford university, he was ordained as a deacon (a sort of probationary priest) in 1861, though he never became a vicar. He wrote a treatise on geometry which has Euclid arguing humorously with is modern rivals. He was also an ‘early adopter’ of the new technology of photography.

I fancy I can detect some of Carroll’s fascination for geometry in his second book, Alice Through the Looking Glass. I wonder if he had read of the discovery, in 1858, of the Möbius strip, when he imagined those paths that always twist round and bring you back where you started.



The story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland supposedly began one drowsy afternoon in Oxford in 1862, when Carroll and another Oxford don took three little girls, Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell, daughters of the University Vice-Chancellor, on a boating trip down the Thames. To while away the time, Carroll wove a story in which Alice, then 10 years old, was the heroine.

Alice was enchanted and asked him to write the story down. He did so, calling it Alice’s Adventures Underground and illustrating it with his own cartoons. When it came to publication, though, friends including the art critic John Ruskin persuaded him to find a professional illustrator. The man Carroll chose was John Tenniel, newly appointed as chief political cartoonist in Punch magazine.

Unsurprisingly for a book of such towering importance, a good deal of mythology clings to it. Many places claim a connection, including the seaside resort of Llandudno, where the Liddells took a holiday home, Pen Morfa. The small town, sheltered by the Great Orme, would certainly have been a tranquil place for the author to work on his creation. However, there is little hard evidence that Carroll joined the Liddells there, though photographer John Lawson-Reay believes he has identified Carroll in a photograph taken at Pen Morfa.

Simon Schama has included some of Carroll’s many photographs of the Liddell girls in his current exhibition of British portraiture (The Face of Britain) at the National Portrait Gallery. They include a previously unseen image of the 18 year old Alice that Schama describes as ‘excruciatingly awkward’. Whether it is awkward because she hates having her photo taken or because of her feelings for the photographer, it is impossible to know. It is true that Carroll’s relationship with the Liddell girls can seem a little queasy through modern eyes, but as Schama tells the Guardian, “We would do very badly to say these [photographs] are purely innocent and ... as badly to say these are exhibit one in the paedophilia case against Lewis Carroll.”



Regardless of the book’s origins, Carroll’s lunatic creations have wormed their way into the hearts and minds of children and adults for a century and a half. In part this is because it was one of the first children’s books intended to be read purely for fun and not instruction. A good deal of credit for Alice’s longevity, however, must go to her original illustrator, John Tenniel.

Many others have tried their hand at drawing Wonderland. Arthur Rackham produced a set of typically ethereal images in 1907. Ralph Steadman, better known for his collaboration with Pink Floyd on The Wall, captured much of the strangeness of Carroll’s imagination in his 1973 edition of Through the Looking Glass. Even Marvel Comics attempted their own versions – including a children’s strip cartoon in 1978, illustrated by Frank Bole, and a 1977 limited edition, drawn by Frank Brunner, with a Playboy-style nude Alice!

Yet it is Tenniel’s images that live on. People who have never read a word of the original can nevertheless recognise the grin of the Cheshire Cat or the 10/6 price tag on the Mad Hatter’s topper (even if they have no idea that 10/6 means ten shillings and six pence – about 52 and a half pence in post-decimalisation coins).

The subversive, surreal nature of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland also makes it the perfect jumping off point for cartoonists and satirists. The Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street, London, is currently hosting Alice in Cartoonland, an exhibition of cartoons inspired by Wonderland. From shortly after publication to the present day, artists have used Carroll’s mad ideas and Tenniel’s iconic images to score political points, or just to make us laugh.

Alice in Cartoonland at the Cartoon Museum
Tenniel himself turned his own drawings into political cartoons in Punch – such as his ‘Alice in Blunderland’ cartoon, showing the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle deriding the newly erected Temple Bar memorial on Fleet Street.

E.H. Shepard, illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh and Wind in the Willows, turned to Alice for inspiration, with his Punch cartoon of Winston Churchill as the Duchess.

Victor Weisz (‘Vicky’) transformed British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan into Alice, his elongated neck a metaphor for the rising cost of living.

John Minnion portrayed Ronald Reagan as the Mock Turtle, Gorbachov as the Gryphon and Margaret Thatcher as Alice in a ‘dance of the superpowers.’

Fluck and Law, creators of Spitting Image, turned to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to satirise the formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.

Guinness produced a whole string of advertisements inspired by Alice, with images by John Gilroy – such as the Queen of Hearts shrieking ‘Off with her head’ and the caption ‘Guinness keeps its head.’

Charles Schulz drew Sally reading a copy of Alice to Snoopy, who gradually disappears, like the Cheshire Cat, until only his grin remains, at which point he reappears, looking shattered, and begs her to read something different.


Adaptations of Alice for stage and screen abound – including the Disney animation of 1951, the Jonathan Miller’s BBC version from 1966, with a cast including John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and Alan Bennett (described in the Radio Times as ‘unsuitable for young children’), the 1988 Czech film Něco z Alenky, (‘Something from Alice’), which mixes animation with live action, Tim Burton’s technicolour fantasy of 2010, and most recently, Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet, jointly commissioned by the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.

But such is the strangeness of Carroll’s creation that no visualisation will ever quite match the one in the mind of a child reading it for the first – or the tenth – time.


Alice in Cartoonland is on display at the Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street, London until 1st November 2015. The exhibition is curated by Brian Sibley, President of the Lewis Carroll society.

Lewis Carroll’s photographs of the Liddell girls are in the 'Face of Love' section of Simon Schama’s The Face of Britain exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London from 16th September 2015 until 4th January 2016.


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