Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser

John Westbrooke enjoys an imaginative look at the influence of Alice in Wonderland

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Alice in Wonderland is up there with Sherlock Holmes as Victorian Britain’s contribution to world culture, two rationalists trying to make sense of strange goings-on.

But Holmes always looks a little out of place when he hasn’t got a deerstalker hat and a London fog. By contrast Alice, as the Victoria and Albert’s fascinating exhibition reveals, really is a woman of the world.

It starts prosaically enough in 1862, with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a 30-year-old maths lecturer, and a friend picnicking by the Thames near Oxford with the three young daughters of the dean of Christchurch College. To entertain them, he made up a story in which one of them, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, followed a white rabbit with a pocket watch, down a hole in the ground.

Alice talked him into writing and drawing the story by hand (though he always insisted it wasn’t about the real Alice at all) but by 1865, he’d rewritten and extended it, got Punch cartoonist John Tenniel to illustrate it, and published it as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. It’s since appeared in 100 or so languages and never been out of print.

The show itself has a fine time chasing down rabbit holes to see where they lead. Carroll, for instance. A shy, stuttering don, irritated that people sought his autograph, he was also something of a lion-hunter himself, associating with celebs in the arts and literature: not many lecturers hung out with painters like John Everett Millais, scientists like Michael Faraday or actresses like Ellen Terry. His writing reflects his interest in logic puzzles, word-play and nonsense. (“Chortle” has made its way into the language; slithy toves haven’t.)

He was up to date, though, interested in natural history in the wake of Charles Darwin’s theories: he incorporated the extinct dodo into the book and took the Liddells to see a dodo skeleton – and here it is on display. Carroll was also keen on photography in its early, cumbersome days, taking studies of the rich and famous as well as of the Liddell girls and others, sometimes with little clothing on. Nobody’s quite sure if he was a paedophile.

And the book itself was modern. Up till then, children’s literature had been heavily moralistic: children were full of original sin and had to be shown how to behave. And yet here’s an inquisitive girl, vanishing down a rabbit hole because she wants to, taking on fantastic beasts, royal tyrants and magic potions with equanimity and occasional exasperation, and finally becoming really angry before waking from her dream unharmed and having learnt no lesson at all.

The exhibition’s lesson is about how far and how fast the story of Alice spread. Carroll was a theatregoer, and adapted the book and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, for stage performance, and they were turned into musicals and pantomimes as well. There was a Wonderland Waltz (written by J.R.R. Tolkien’s great-uncle). There were toys and board games – and all this a century before Star Wars flooded the galaxy with merchandise.

In the 20th century, it was cinema that took Alice into a new dimension. You can watch clips of a 1903 version that ran for all of 10 minutes – the longest British film of its day, and making use of special effects. By 1915 there was an American version running for almost an hour. They both stuck closely to Tenniel’s illustrations (for which he invented the Alice band). But in 1932, for the centenary of Carroll’s birth, Alice was invited to New York, and Hollywood noted the publicity she got.

The result, years later thanks to wartime delays, was the 1951 Disney cartoon. Walt Disney had experimented with live Alices against cartoon backgrounds back in the 1920s, but this was a full-scale colour feature and, surprisingly, it wasn’t a great success. Uncle Walt concluded that this was because Alice had no heart – it’s certainly less sentimental than a lot of Disney films, but that’s how the books are.

The exhibition however highlights the work of Disney designer Mary Blair, who created the archetypal modern Alice look: less fussy and Victorian than Tenniel’s original (too hard to animate all those pen strokes), gold hair, blue eyes not as enormous than those of modern Disney princesses, blue dress tight at the waist like the Dior New Look, white apron and stockings. If you hire an Alice fancy dress, that’s the style you’ll get.

Later big-screen versions include Dreamchild, in which ageing Alice in America recalls Wonderland denizens created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and Tim Burton’s eye-popping 3D Imax films in which Alice seems to have acquired a purpose and to have merged with Dorothy in Oz.

But her fame expanded well beyond the nursery and the cinema. Surrealists and Freudians were inspired by Alice’s shapeshifting journey through what feels like the unconscious. Salvador Dalí did a collection of illustrations of the story. Max Ernst’s Alice in 1941 has her half-trapped in a rock.

By the 1960s, she was being seen through a psychedelic lens. You can look at the poster for the Disney re-release showing her sitting on a mushroom, and listen to Grace Slick sing Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, about hookah-smoking caterpillars: “Remember what the dormouse said, Feed your head.” Alice’s dreamland had become a hippie trip.

But she’s so widely known she can have almost any meaning these days. Here she is advertising a 1960s Ford Falcon station wagon. There she is inspiring a clothing collection in Vogue. Heston Blumenthal provides a recipe for mock turtle soup. She’s a troubled soul in a dystopian video game. You can play croquet with virtual reality headsets. Models and activists portray her in an all-black Pirelli calendar. The last exhibit is a mirror maze labelled Quantumland and echoing ongoing research at CERN in Switzerland in its ALICE project – that’s “A Large Ion Collider Experiment” – into quarks.

And then, in the spirit of the books, you could duck back to the first room and wonder at how these primitive photos and hand-written manuscript by a shy academic have expanded in 150 years into tools for exploring the universe. It’s wonderful.

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser runs at the V&A, Wednesday to Sunday until 31 December 2021. Must book: tickets £20 for adults, concessions available; under 12 free.

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