Alice must have been quite a girl. 150 years after that glorious boating trip up the Thames, people all over the world are celebrating the wonderland that was created for her by Lewis Carroll. There are theatrical adaptions in Oxford, operas in London, marionette performances in Salzburg and art installations in Moscow. In California, balls and picnic dances are on the cards, costumed with inspired Victorian dress ( or pre-Raphaelite, Aesthetic of Romantic ), the Grolier Club in NYC is having conferences to discuss alternate translations, the National Museum of Mathematics is doing the sums on Carroll, and the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn is hosting a ( sold out ) night-time festival of Dark Wonderland. But of all the exhibitions and events, the best salute to this iconic story is at the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue, where the original hand-drawn and hand-illustrated manuscript is on display.
Breathtakingly under glass in the middle of the room is the artwork, three years in the making and one of the great fictional works of the world. Not to mention the source of much nonfictional speculation, as the gap widens between modern and Victorian mores. But Alice is full of unsolved puzzles, and the joy of the exhibition is the presentation of so many original pieces. Carroll’s journals and the wood blocks of the printing style of the era line up with Alice’s engraved purse, her ring and bibles. There are photographic plates and original drawings, and the progression of title as Alice’s Adventures Underground became Alice’s Hour in Elfinland before choosing to be in Wonderland.
Lewis Carroll, having made his money in photography was actually a self publisher, and this empowered him to order a complete reprint of the first publication when Terriel, his genius illustrator and coincidentally the political Punch cartoonist ( and creator of the Mad hatter ), complained it was inferior. Only a handful of this first pressing survive – the Morgan has one – as most of the 2,000 issues were sent off the the ‘secondary’ literary market that was America. But since that remake, and Carroll’s doubt about the 40,000 sales he would need to break even, the story has never been out of print.
The commercial success of Alice is so phenomenal that to see the original elements of the work is to see a holy grail of the imagination. For whatever else happened, the story is a treasure. When Alice herself had to part with the original manuscript to pay for the death duties of her husband, it was bought to the United States and stayed on this side of the pond for 20 years. But a further auction saw a group of local benefactors purchase and gift the book back to the British people in gratitude for their gallantry in the second world war. Some people have long necks and others have long memories. Alice lovers come in all shapes and sizes, and they are not afraid to show it…