The Beguiling Legacy of “Alice in Wonderland”

The origins of Alice’s tumble into Wonderland are explored in an exhibition at the Victoria…

The origins of Alice’s tumble into Wonderland are explored in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.Art work by Peter Blake / Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

Currently, when I just cannot snooze, I choose a book to the couch and turn on a studying lamp. Sleeplessness is lonely—and generally infuriating—and it is a convenience to search at text on a web site. Generally, the duller the terms the better. In the very long predawn hrs, I have read histories of quite previous structures insignificant gods remote, 50 %-neglected conflicts—and retained practically practically nothing. But retention is not the stage. If you wait extended enough—if you are drained enough—something magical will unfold. The sentences will start to bend and blur collectively. They will filter into your desires in surreal, and not uncomfortable, ways. At a certain hour, examining results in being a psychedelic knowledge.

This is in particular real of Lewis Carroll’s nonetheless trippy “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” from 1865, and its even odder sequel, “By way of the Wanting-Glass, and What Alice Observed There”—both of which I have been looking through late at night. In the morning, when other textbooks have experienced their espresso and sobered up, Carroll’s operates stay dreamlike and stubbornly nonsensical. “Down, down, down. Would the fall never ever come to an close?” Carroll writes, as Alice plunges down the rabbit hole. The hole is lined with cabinets (the natural way), and she plucks a jar of orange marmalade from a person as she passes. “I wonder if I shall tumble suitable by means of the earth!” she frets. “How humorous it’ll seem to be to arrive out between the people today that stroll with their heads downwards!”

The origins of Alice’s tumble into Wonderland and its extensive cultural afterlife—everything from Carroll’s tentative to start with sketches to cheery, Alice-themed commercials for Guinness and tomato juice made a hundred decades later (“Welcome to a Wonderland of good ingesting!”)—are the issue of a beguiling new exhibition, “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. I visited not long ago. Slipping inside a museum immediately after months of the U.K.’s rigorous lockdown felt, even masked and distanced, like a revelation all people there was buzzing. The clearly show starts down, down in the broad subterranean place of the Sainsbury Gallery, within a room stuffed with the appears of oars hitting the h2o. It is intended to evoke the now famed day that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who later on adopted the pen identify Lewis Carroll, rowed up the Thames with his good friend Robinson Duckworth and the a few Liddell sisters, who have been neighbors of his: Lorina, Alice, then 10, and Edith. The legend goes like this: a person blazing-scorching working day on the river, the youngsters demanded enjoyment and Dodgson obliged, spinning a fantastical tale as they went along. (The genuine story may well be fewer neat: the temperature on July 4th, 1862, the working day of the boat trip, was “cool and relatively wet,” according to some resources.) Alice asked Dodgson to produce the story down for her, and, on Christmas, 1864, he handed her the completed manuscript, then termed “Alice’s Adventures Below Floor.” He was meticulous it experienced no mistakes. The final website page highlighted a smaller image of Alice’s facial area and, underneath, a portrait of her that Dodgson had drawn by hand.

Dodgson’s initial manuscript, on personal loan from the British Library, is a strikingly stunning and weird item, the protect embellished with a border of unruly wildflowers, like an overgrown back garden. Meticulously hand-lettered and illustrated by Dodgson in fine, spindly pen, the care he has taken in weaving the drawings into the moment textual content is obvious. (“What is the use of a reserve,” Alice miracles early in the tale, “without images or conversation?”) The devotion, embellished with curling environmentally friendly vines, reads, “A Xmas Gift to a Dear Little one in Memory of a Summertime Day.” When I observed the demonstrate, which runs right up until the conclude of December, the small guide experienced been flipped open up to reveal a web site that includes one particular of Dodgson’s illustrations of Alice. In the story, she has just eaten a mysterious cake (there’s a card on best, and “the phrases ‘Take in ME’ were superbly printed on it in huge letters”) and she finds herself stretching upward, her neck elongated, nearly over and above the confines of the e-book, “like the major telescope that at any time was!” “Curiouser and curiouser!” she states.

Curious would be the way to explain the Victorians of Alice’s working day. The show’s curator, Kate Bailey, has evoked the era’s flurry of discovery and field, its devotion to science and development, with a carrousel of delightful oddities: an eighteen-fifties kaleidoscope, an unwieldy folding-box digital camera of the sort Dodgson employed, the skeleton of a dodo. There’s an accordion-like paper design of Hyde Park’s “Great Exhibition,” a production-and-structure showcase that blew everyone’s brain in 1851. (Dodgson called it “a sort of fairyland.”) There is a fascination with childhood on screen as properly, which appears to be to have started out at the major, with Queen Victoria, who had nine children a sepia-colored photograph demonstrates a placid little one balanced on her lap. “Attitudes towards childhood improved in the 19th century,” the explanatory text reads, “moving absent from puritanical concepts of unique sin in the direction of associations with freedom, creativity and innocence.” The Victorians were being “preoccupied and fascinated by childhood, and by the kid,” Bailey explained to me, lately. “That was the moment wherever children’s literature emerged.”

The actual Alice Liddell was the daughter of Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church school at Oxford University, wherever Dodgson taught mathematics. Early in the display, there is an arresting photograph of Alice taken by Dodgson, in 1858. She’s seated in profile and dressed like a Victorian doll: ruffled sleeves, darkish bob. She appears severe and maybe a minor impatient. In the system of Alice’s life time, Dodgson photographed her lots of times. He lived subsequent door—his research forgotten the backyard garden the place she performed with her sisters—and was a regular visitor at her family’s property. He was obviously smitten, possibly inappropriately so, though the character of Dodgson’s partnership with Alice is not anything that the exhibition investigates. (There is no apparent proof that Dodgson crossed the line, just lingering suspicions). A solitary placard less than a photograph of the Liddell sisters reads, “Today Dodgson’s shut friendship with Alice Liddell would be scrutinised, but in Victorian occasions it was not seen as inappropriate for a man to befriend a younger girl.” Bailey informed me that she desired to make a exhibit about the “impact and legacy of the guides, as opposed to truly scrutinizing the biography of Lewis Carroll.”

The exhibition options numerous mannequins exhibiting “Alice in Wonderland”-themed costumes.Photograph courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

From a darkened space steeped in Victoriana, you convert a literal corner and find oneself in a hallway in which the walls show up to be shrinking. Or perhaps you are simply just developing larger sized. At the conclusion, there’s a little doorway powering a curtain. Peek into its small windows and you are going to see a walled yard, full with neat hedges and pink flamingos. (“She knelt down and appeared along the passage into the loveliest backyard you ever noticed,” an inscription on the door reads.) Spherical yet another corner and there’s a electronic pool of tears, like the just one Alice instantly found herself swimming in (“ ‘I desire I hadn’t cried so substantially!’ ”) From there, matters only get stranger, with rooms building on one particular one more freely, like actors in an improv course. There’s a space that resembles a down-on-its-luck seaside pier, with a striped pavilion full of mirrors and backward producing. (“Who in the earth am I? Ah, which is the wonderful puzzle!”) There is also an arcade-like equipment with a hand crank that triggers Alice to extend comically upward. (Hand sanitizer supplied.) A lazy caterpillar on stilts oversees it all.