The Nursery “Alice,” containing twenty coloured enlargements from Tenniel's illustrations to “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” with text adapted to nursery readers by Lewis Carroll (1890)

150 years of Alice in Wonderland

Helen Melody, British Library Curator of Contemporary Literature, discusses the creation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and introduces our exhibition about a classic of children's literature.
The exhibition begins with the origins of the famous tale, which Charles Dodgson first told to Alice Liddell and her sisters, the daughters of the dean of his Oxford College, Christchurch, on a boat trip down the river on the 4th July 1862. When they returned to Oxford the ten-year-old Alice begged Dodgson to write down the story for her, which he did in a beautiful handwritten, illustrated manuscript entitled ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’. The manuscript took some time to create and it was finally presented to Alice as an early Christmas present two years later in 1864. With its creation the manuscript immortalised the tale of Alice and her enchanting adventures in Wonderland.

'Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland [folio: 7r]

Lewis Carroll’s friendship with the children would lead him to create one of the most famous and enduring children’s stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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Vol IV of Lewis Carroll's diaries

Vol IV of Lewis Carroll's diaries [folio: f. 14v]

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson recounts when he first told the tale of Alice in Wonderland to the daughters of the University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor.

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When he was working on the manuscript Dodgson showed it to a number of his friends who encouraged him to publish the story. He finally decided to publish it though in order to preserve his privacy he decided to use the pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, which he had previously used when publishing literary (rather than mathematical) work. Carroll re-wrote and enlarged the original story removing private references and jokes intended for his original audience and added two new chapters. In fact Carroll’s original manuscript did not include some of the characters that readers most associate with Wonderland – the Duchess, the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter and the March Hare. It is almost impossible now to imagine the published story without them!

Although Carroll had illustrated Alice’s Adventures Under Ground himself he was not satisfied with his illustrations and he decided to look for a professional illustrator instead. He secured the services of the artist and illustrator, Sir John Tenniel, who was at the time best known for his cartoons for Punch. Tenniel created 42 illustrations for Alice five more than Carroll had drawn in his manuscript. Although there is speculation about how well (or not) Carroll and Tenniel got on, their working relationship led to the creation of one of the most enduring children’s classics. 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland marked a real change in children’s literature. It was more entertaining and whimsical than other children’s books of the period and less moralistic and didactic. Tenniel’s illustrations were also significant as there are few descriptions of the characters in the text. Interestingly many subsequent illustrators seem to have been influenced by Tenniel’s illustrations as much as Carroll’s text. Many of the defining characteristics which we think of when we think of Alice, such as her blonde hair tied back with what we now call an “Alice band” and her white apron, are legacies of Tenniel’s illustrations rather than Carroll’s text.
Image from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Review of Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland

Review of Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland [page: 123]

A positive review of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  and the as yet unknown author Lewis Carroll. It describes the novel as an ‘exquisitely wild, fantastic, impossible, yet most natural history’.

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The inclusion of three of Carroll’s diaries in the exhibition provides an insight into the creation of his story alongside early published editions of his work. The exhibition also explores Carroll’s involvement with the industry that developed around Alice and saw the creation of memorabilia such as the Wonderland stamp case and the Birthday Book, and a musical version of Alice’s story for the stage created by Henry Savile Clarke.

Play adaptation of Alice in Wonderland

Play adaptation of Alice in Wonderland [page: front cover]

In 1886 Henry Savile Clarke adapted Alice in Wonderland into a musical stage show.

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In the past much has been made of Carroll’s fastidiousness about all things relating to Alice. Whilst it is true that he was particular about the way in which his books were published (the first runs of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Nursery Alice were withdrawn because of concerns about their quality) Carroll did manage and fund all aspects of the publication himself which included making decisions on the paper and binding to be used, as well as finding and engaging engravers and printers. With all the expense coming out of his pocket it is not hard to understand Carroll’s determination that everything be done well.

The Nursery Alice

The Nursery Alice [page: 5]

‘Drink me’ Alice illustration by John Tenniel from The Nursery Alice, 1890.

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With the deaths of Carroll and Tenniel (in 1898 and 1914 respectively) and the expiration of the book’s copyright in 1907 the 20th century saw the publication of a large number of new illustrated editions of Carroll’s story along with parodies, and film and music, about and inspired by, Wonderland. The exhibition includes the earliest Alice film from 1903, along with music which inspired Carroll and music which in return was inspired by him. Bringing things right up to 2015 it will also include the winning entry of the Off the Map computer game competition, which in 2015 was Alice themed. 

The exhibition includes illustrated editions of Carroll’s story by 25 different illustrators and it would not have been difficult to find another 25 as the story remains a rich source of inspiration for artists. Alice’s world has been depicted by artists from Arthur Rackham and Charles Robinson through Mabel Lucie Attwell, Willy Pogány and Mervyn Peake, to Ralph Steadman and Helen Oxenbury. Through their work we can see the way in which these artists have responded to Carroll’s story as individuals as well as considering the way in which political and social changes have coloured Alice’s story. Contemporary events and attitudes are often reflected in new editions, from the price of the Hatter’s hat to the style and personas adopted by the characters to the style of the illustrations. The rose-tinted, safe and friendly Wonderland populated by children which was created during the troubled 1930s juxtaposes with the darker imaginings of Mervyn Peake, Barry Moser and Marketa Prachaticka in the post war years. Alice remains malleable, adaptable and ever relevant: the strength of Carroll’s story is that it remains as fresh today as it was when it first published. Even today 150 years later Alice’s story continues to enthral us, pervading our culture and speaking to new generations of children and adult alike. Subsequent interpretations have been influenced by wars, artistic movements, political causes, technological advancements, commerce and even psychoanalytic theories. Arguably we still associate Wonderland with the original visions of Carroll and Tenniel and whilst new illustrators shape the mood of the story they hardly ever manage to move completely away from the 1865 edition.
  • Helen Melody
  • Helen is the Lead Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative archives at the British Library. She joined the British Library in 2008 and has worked with a number of different literary and theatrical collections at the Library including the archives and manuscripts of Ted Hughes, W.H. Auden, the Brontës, Angela Carter, Laurie Lee Wilfred Owen and Edward Upward.

    Helen was one of the curators of the Library’s 2015 ‘Alice in Wonderland’ exhibition and was also a judge for the Off the Map videogame competition which in 2015 was Alice themed.