Does Your Watch Tell You What Year It Is? It’s The 150th Anniversary Of Alice In Wonderland!

A very merry un-un-birthday to Alice in Wonderland: in which I fall down a rabbit hole of museums and end up getting published in The Lewis Carroll Review

alice tea party

An illustration by Milo Winter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass, 1938

Alice Is Everywhere

This year (26 November, specifically), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland celebrates its 150th anniversary of publication. In the past century and a half, the story behind Alice has filled far more pages than the character herself, and the adaptations for stage and screen are still coming thick and fast (some of course are better received than others). Alice is nothing short of ubiquitous, both a physical constant and a malleable work that can shaped by any writer or artist for just about any purpose.

“There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!”

For instance, take the White Rabbit, who has become a universal signal for “everything’s about to get weird” —he’s inspired everything from rock music to comic book villains to computer science projects to craft beer. Since they’re now in the public domain, John Tenniel’s drawings from the original edition are pervasive too:

“Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either,
but thought they were nice grand words to say.”

If you already love Alice or if you want to find out more about her and her creator, Lewis Carroll, there are loads of things around the country and the world to see and do in commemoration of the book’s anniversary. You can check out a list of them here. Read on for my own adventures in Aliceland.

Into The Archives, And What I Found There

The English poet W.H. Auden said that “one might learn much about the cultural history of a country by going through the speeches made by its public men over a certain period, in legislatures, in law courts, and at official banquets, and making a list of the books quoted from without attribution. So far as Great Britain is concerned, I strongly suspect that, for the past fifty years, the two Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark have headed it.” To see just how much the Brits celebrate Alice, on a recent trip to London I visited the British Library’s new exhibition on her.

“The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts, all on a summer day:
The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts, and took them quite away!”

The exhibit is all I could want from the library that’s the center of British literature, well thought out, well designed, and chock full of artifacts I couldn’t photograph, which included manuscripts, notes, letters, and all kinds of textual and illustrated adaptations. The library also gave Alice her own pop-up shop in the library and is offering an extensive list of merchandise online. The photos below are from the parts I could photograph.

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Not having attended any official banquets on this trip, I can’t verify Auden’s assessment,  but Alice was indeed everywhere in England. The NY Times just published a nice piece about Alice in Oxford — maybe I’ll make that pilgrimage for the 160th anniversary.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at!”

Alice is beloved on the other side of the pond, too. The Rosenbach Library and Museum is putting on its own exhibit, through May 15, 2016, that features the storied connection to Philadelphia maintained by both the fictional and nonfictional Alices. A.S.W. Rosenbach, the museum’s founder, was a voracious book collector and had a particular interest in Carroll. He purchased the original manuscript at auction for a world-record price of 15,000 pounds before selling it, buying it back, then giving it to the British Library. That original manuscript in fact got to return from the British Library to spend a week in Philadelphia in October (you can read the story about it here). The Rosenbach has some fascinating documents in its archives and tells an engaging story about Alice’s cultural impact, but my favorite part of the exhibit is the “Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk?” gallery, which celebrates Carroll as a mathematician and riddler and lets visitors solve puzzles and play games, like circular billiards.

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