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Alice in Wonderland at The British Library

Ryan Ormonde

The British Library’s free exhibition on Alice in Wonderland finds various treasures, literary and otherwise, among the library’s collections.

Well-loved for 150 years and copyright-free for over 100, the very Victorian and very English children’s book Alice in Wonderland is an indelible part of Western culture, crossing barriers of nation, language and fashion. The Alice consciousness (‘curiouser and curiouser’) is so identifiable it transcends the well-spoken, precocious girl in the crinolines and pinafore. In its current Alice in Wonderland exhibition (following on from The Cartoon Museum's exhibition earlier this year), The British Library celebrates both the book (proudly displaying the many editions from the library’s collection) and its legacy, which takes on a whole new dimension amid the post-war explosion of pop culture.

Short of the chance to thumb the original manuscript, Alice bibliophiles could not expect much more from the book displays on show here. Though Lewis Carroll’s hand-written, hand-drawn original is behind glass, a large interactive screen lets visitors turn the pages of an enlarged, virtual copy. Not only is the first edition present and correct, the not-so-correct suppressed first edition is also here. Its illustrator John Tenniel demanded the imperfect run to be recalled, although he was happy for those copies to be shipped to the U.S. It is Tenniel’s original woodblocks that somehow provide the strongest connection to the book’s history. While the story itself has risen from the page to enter cultural consciousness, here are unique, physical presences, carved by an artist, small enough to fit in his hand. Although Alice is now public property and universal, these precious objects remind a viewer of her singular (or rather dual) creation.

If anything, this exhibition encourages viewers to return to the original story and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Other media are celebrated too. Cinema came along thirty years after the book’s publication, a few years before the death of Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll. The first film adaptation of Alice was made by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow in 1903. It appears in the exhibition along with a scene from Jan Švankmajer’s surreal and inventive 1988 Alice, with its extensive use of stop-motion animation. The British Library have also commissioned three computer game concepts based on the story.

Tim Burton’s deviating yet hugely successful film version and its forthcoming sequel are not referenced here, perhaps because their ubiquity has made them the over-familiar point of departure. Although the 1950s Disney adaptation flopped on release, its eventual elevation to classic status is said to be in part due to a rediscovery by a psychedelic counterculture a few years later. If Disney contributed a trippy colour palate to the story, its mind-bending potential was already in evidence in the pages of the book. One of Ralph Steadman’s wild illustrations, some groovy posters and even a set of headphones for visitors to listen to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ evoke Alice’s 1960s phase nicely.

Overall, there are several unusual and inventive items on display, representing various eras of Alice mania. Co-curator Helen Melody points out an example of Alice being used to promote the health benefits of an alcoholic drink, from the 1930s: “Guinness the Brewery were very keen to get support from doctors saying that Guinness was good for you. So they wrote to doctors asking for testimonials and they sent out these little pamphlets.” Inside, characters from Alice comment approvingly on a pint of the famous stout.

Not only is the British Library displaying examples of Alice memorabilia over the years, it is also contributing to the Alice economy with its first ever pop-up shop, featuring an array of themed goodies from Oyster card holders to ‘Drink Me’ miniature bottles of bubbly. On sale too are editions of the book more affordable than the ones behind glass, including a hilariously designed pulp fiction copy.

If Alice survived many physical changes during the course of her adventures in Wonderland, even more transformations were in store for her in the real world. And yet, like the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and all the rest, she remains ever the same. Curiouser and curiouser...

Alice in Wonderland is on display in the entrance hall of the British Library until 17th April 2016. For more information, see website.

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