Discover Alice in an Oxford Wonderland
A topsy-turvy world...
‘ “Take some more tea," the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
"I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more."
"You mean you can't take less," said the Hatter: "it's very easy to take more than nothing."
"Nobody asked your opinion," said Alice.’
It was a golden afternoon in July 1862, when Reverend Charles Dodgson, an Oxford don better-known today by his pen name Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), took the ten-year-old Alice Liddell and her sisters on a boating picnic up the River Thames from Folly Bridge in Oxford, via Binsey to Godstow where they picnicked on the riverbank.
To amuse the children Dodgson told them a story about a little girl, sitting by a riverbank, who tumbled down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called Wonderland.
The story so delighted Alice that she begged him to write it down. The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland published in 1865 with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel whose Punch illustrations Dodgson greatly admired and in which the influence of Oxford can be clearly seen. For example, in Tenniel’s picture the door, to the sides of which frog and fish footmen stand, is clearly the Norman Door from the Chapter House at Christ Church, just along from Charles Dodgson’s rooms, and it is thought that the brass firedogs in the fireplaces in Christ Church hall inspired an illustration of Alice with ‘an immense length of neck which seemed to rise like a stalk’.
The inspiration for many Wonderland characters could be found in and around Oxford: The Cheshire cat is thought to be the story counterpart of Alice Liddell’s cat Dinah;
the White Rabbit, in his constant haste and tardiness is said to resemble Dean Liddell, Alice's father;
and in the Museum of Natural History, a striking gothic temple to nature jammed full of exotic specimens and one of Lewis Carroll’s favourite haunts, the now infamous Oxford Dodo is proudly housed in a case with a white rabbit and a walrus skull since his inclusion in the Wonderland cast. The Dodo challenges Alice and other woodland creatures to a Caucus Race with no beginning or end, all winners and no losers, which is clearly a foolish form of competition.
Charles Dodgson was a sub-librarian at the college for several years and a talented mathematician and both these threads of interest come across in the story. His delight in make-believe and madness may be inconsistent with the logical mind of a mathematician but he delighted in the absurdities he created with words and had, for example, whimsical fun with the school in the sea where the teacher was a Tortoise because he ‘taught us’, and lessons ‘lessened’ every day until there had to be a day off. Having taken holy orders in 1861, and a man of an enquiring nature at the time of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, it has been suggested that Dodgson may have been wrestling with the realisation that the church’s teaching and an interest in the emerging theories of evolution were at odds with one another.
‘Well, I guess you would call me... genus, humanus... Alice’
This year we celebrate one hundred and fifty years since the publication of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which marked the birth of modern children’s literature: prior to this literature written for children took the form of fairy tales that carried moral messages. Alice in Wonderland was refreshingly different in its enjoyment of reckless adventure, and remains today the most-popular, most widely-quoted and most-translated story ever told, with printed editions even in Esperanto and shorthand. In hundreds of variations, the book has been illustrated by almost every successful children’s illustrator from Arthur Rackham to Helen Oxenbury, and retold in multiple film formats as varied as the Disney version (1951) and more recently the 2010 version starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Queens of Hearts.
Since 2005, Oxford has celebrated an annual Alice’s Day and on Saturday 7 July the city will commemorate this special birthday with family events at twenty venues including The Ashmolean; the Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museums, Blackwell’s Bookshop, The Botanic Garden, Oxford Castle, The Story Museum, and The Perch in Binsey (home to the Wonderland treacle well’s namesake) which invites you to a Mad Hatter’s cocktail party!
There will also be a mass-participation dance, the lobster quadrille, outside the Museum of Natural History and over at the Oxford Playhouse an exciting new production of Alice’s underground adventures is presented by Magdalen College School Theatre for the occasion. This new adaptation finds the iconic heroine disappearing down the rabbit hole to meet not only the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat but also some of Lewis Carroll’s lesser known characters, drawn from other articles published by Dodgson whose pocket watch is housed at the Museum of Oxford alongside some of Alice Liddell’s personal items, first edition books and the original illustrations. .
In Japan, the Alice books are extremely popular and have influenced both art, entertainment and fashion – and for this Alice’s day you’ll be able to see a beautiful visual interpretation by Japanese artist Hiroko Hanna whose illustrations are based on Carroll's photos of Alice Liddell, the original printing plates for which will be on display at the Bodleian Library while these photographs of the real Alice Liddell will be on show in Christ Church library.
Amateur photography became popular in 1851 with the development of the collodion process in which a chemical solution was used for developing plates. Dodgson acquired his first camera in 1856 and was a keen photographer, photographing Alice on numerous occasions, and the Museum of History of Science on Broad Street houses some of Carroll’s photographic equipment and Victorian cameras.
For another step back in time, or for an Alice’s Day souvenir, head to Alice's Shop on St Aldate’s where Alice Liddell used to buy sweets – it’s now dedicated to Alice memorabilia, but was once the inspiration for The Sheep Shop in Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, and from there, regular expert-guided Alice tours take place throughout the summer.
Top Image - The Story Museum
Bottom Image - The Story Museum