Down the rabbit hole: 150 years of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

As the world celebrates 150 years of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Gary Jones looks back on the book's impact on art and popular culture

Gary Jones
An illustration for the original 1865 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Since its original publication in 1865, 150 years ago this year, has proven an enduring classic of children's literature. The ground-breaking fantasy has never been out of print since that day, has been translated into more than 170 languages, and influenced artists and pop-cultural luminaries as disparate as surrealist painter Salvador Dali, filmmaker Tim Burton, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Beatle John Lennon.

Telling the tale of a bored but precocious young girl who falls through a rabbit hole into an hallucinatory world of grinning felines, manic milliners and self-important playing cards, Lewis Carroll's mind-bending, logic-twisting tale has charmed adults as well as with children for generations, inviting imaginations to run wild and readers to view our "curiouser and curiouser" world through the looking glass.

" was a watershed in the history of children's literature, not just because it was one of the first non-didactic, non-moralising books for young readers, but because it featured an inquiring, independently minded, self-possessed heroine who seems as 'modern' today as she did in 1865," says Brian Sibley, president of Britain's Lewis Carroll Society, a network of enthusiasts, experts, writers, researchers that was formed in 1969 to encourage research into the life and works of the author.

"Being an account of a dream," the 65-year-old writer and broadcaster continues, "the book is full of weird characters and bizarre events but, however unlikely and unexpected, they always seem - both to Alice and to us, as readers - to be perfectly believable. As a result, the Hatter and the March Hare, the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat are as 'real' as anyone we might encounter in our everyday life, and a lot more entertaining than most."

Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of University of Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and - according to the legend of what is referred to by Alice fanatics as "the Golden Afternoon" - on July 4, 1862, he and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth (represented by the Duck in , and who later officiated at the 1882 funeral of Charles Darwin) took a boating trip on Oxford's Isis river with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University.

During their jaunt, Dodgson entertained the youngsters with an off-the-cuff story detailing the adventures of a young girl called Alice. Dodgson named his protagonist for 10-year-old Alice Liddell, who subsequently asked him to write his magical story down for her. Dodgson began the next day.

When published three years later, Alice proved a sensation, and the entire print run sold out immediately. Today the book is considered the finest example of the literary nonsense genre of writing that first became popular in Victorian England (Queen Victoria herself was an early reader and admirer), and there have now been more than 100 English-language editions of the book, as well as countless adaptations in theatre and film.

"Alice and company have appeared on all manner of merchandise from toys, games, puzzles, clothing and jewellery, and have been used to advertise everything from tea and biscuits to beer, motor cars and refrigerators," says Sibley. "It is an extraordinary legacy."

Sibley adds that Carroll's original 1864 version of the story - handwritten and with his own less-than-professional illustrations - was titled , only revising the name for publication (and commissioning 92 improved illustrations by John Tenniel, principal political cartoonist for Britain's magazine for more than 50 years) the next year. "It was a good choice," Sibley says, "since it is a story of wonder, being full of things to wonder at and providing and provoking all kinds of thoughts and ideas to wonder about."

It was a watershed in the history of children’s literature … because it featured an inquiring, independently minded, self-possessed heroine who seems as ‘modern’ today as she did in 1865

And that sense of wonder continues to this day, and appears to be peaking in 2015, with thousands of theatrical, film, dance and musical happenings, art exhibitions, product launches, themed parties and more organised across the planet for the book's anniversary.

Undoubtedly, Alice is currently trending worldwide. In January, the UK's Royal Mail issued a set of postage stamps depicting scenes from the book, including the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Other characters featured in the collection include Alice herself, the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat.

Designer Westwood, whose twisted take on British-ness has regularly been inspired by Carroll's fantasy, has collaborated with publishing house Vintage Classics to release a special edition of . A new Alice-inspired musical called , with a score by Blur's Damon Albarn, opens at London's National Theatre in November.

Inside pages of a 1966 edition.

Meanwhile, an exhibition called "The Alice Look", currently on display at London's V&A Museum Jof Childhood, brings together garments, photographs, multimedia and illustrations - including Annie Liebowitz's photographs for US and music videos from Gwen Stefani, Avril Lavigne and Aerosmith - that explore how Alice has influenced fashion through the decades.

Asia, too, has caught the Alice bug, most notably Japan, where the Lewis Carroll Society of Japan, founded in 1994, is holding a number of exhibitions and events, and will stage a July party in Tokyo to commemorate that "Golden Afternoon".

Rivalling the tale's British homeland, however, the country with perhaps the largest Alice following is the United States, with the Lewis Carroll Society of North America coordinating hundreds of commemorative activities this year, including an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York that runs until October 11 and features the original manuscript on loan from the British Library in London.
Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles L. Dodgson. Photo: Corbis

In March, the North American society's president, Stephanie Lovett, told that and its 1871 sequel, , are "likely the most frequently quoted works of fiction in the English-speaking world, standing alongside only Shakespeare in frequency of citation".

The effect on the popular - and global - imagination, Lovett insists, has been profound. "It has been adapted for the theatre thousands of times, starting during Carroll's lifetime with a very successful London production, and these plays range from straight portrayals of the book to wildly inventive performances, such as the immersive theatre production playing in Brooklyn right now," Lovett told .

"There have also been numerous puppet, ballet, opera and other performance pieces. was filmed by Edison Studios before the turn of the century, and many theatrical and television movies have followed, both animated and live-action. Cartoons, comics and graphic novels abound. Writers have created spinoffs and parodies, as well as playing more indirectly with Carroll influences, as we see in James Joyce and John Lennon."

Lovett's favourite moment in the 150-year-old book is when Alice "stops politely obeying the rules and conventions of social life and demolishes everything in an act of truth-telling". Lovett is, of course, referring to when Alice exerts her sanity in the midst of so much apparent madness. Called as a witness at the trial of the Knave of Hearts, who has been accused of stealing the Queen of Hearts' beloved tarts, Alice loses her temper over the ridiculous proceedings and bellows: "You're nothing but a pack of cards!"

"To me, this is the triumph of the book, in the Victorian era and for any age - making sure that children learn that there is a point at which authority must be challenged, the truth must be told, and power taken back from those who don't deserve it," Lovett says. "This is what makes the book so radical, and why I personally admire it so much."

Lovett's opposite number across the Atlantic agrees with her rebellious viewpoint. "If there's a character with whom I identify most, it would be Alice herself," says Sibley of the UK's Lewis Carroll Society.

"She is always eager to ask questions, hungry to learn, ready to engage with everyone from a cat to a queen, and desperately trying to make sense of the absurd rules and regulations of a crazy world."

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Never-ending story