12 Absurd Facts About Alice in Wonderland
When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came out in 1865, it was a blockbuster success. The book is widely credited with changing the landscape of children’s literature, adding nonsensical fun to what had been a genre obsessed with moralizing. This year, the literary cornerstone turns 150 years old. Here are a few facts you might not know about Alice and its author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll):
1. The real Alice was the daughter of Carroll’s boss.
The real Alice, who lent her name to the story, was the daughter of Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford, where Carroll taught mathematics. “Everyone who was employed by the school lived on campus,” says Carolyn Vega, the assistant curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan Library, which is currently running an exhibition on Alice. “Carroll met the dean and Alice’s older brother first, and that’s how he came to know the entire family.”
Alice Liddell in wreath as “Queen of May,” 1860. Image Credit: Albumen print, Photograph by Lewis Carroll (1832–1898). Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.
2. The Mad Hatter never would have existed without the persistence of children.
When Carroll began telling a fantastic tale to Alice Liddell and her two sisters on a summer 1862 boating trip up the Thames, he didn’t plan on becoming a children’s author. But just like your niece who won’t stop begging to watch Frozen again, the kids wouldn’t stop asking him to tell the story—Carroll wrote about having to retell “the interminable Alice’s adventures” in his diary. He eventually turned it into a written novel, presenting it to Alice as an early Christmas gift in 1864. By the time he self-published the final version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, it had doubled in length, with new scenes including those with the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. “These episodes are likely something that came up later in the retelling of the story,” Vega says.
3. The original illustrator hated the first edition.
Carroll commissioned prominent English illustrator John Tenniel to create the accompanying art for the story. When he saw an early copy of the book, Tenniel was so dismayed at how badly his drawings had been reproduced, Carroll scrapped the entire edition, spending more than half his annual salary to get it reprinted and leaving him in a financial hole before the book even came out. Luckily, once widely published, Alice enjoyed instant success. The books from the subpar printing were later sold in America.
4. It was first made into a movie in 1903.
Only a handful of years after Carroll died, directors Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stowe made the story into a 12-minute film. At the turn of the century, that made it the longest film produced in Britain. Hepworth himself played the Frog Footman, while his wife was cast as the White Rabbit and the Queen.
5. Carroll almost called it “Alice’s Hour in Elfland.”
Writing in his diary of the afternoon boating trip that inspired Carroll to come up with a story for young Alice Liddell, he tried out a few different titles for his novel. The original tale presented to the 10-year-old Liddell was called “Alice’s Adventures Underground,” but upon publication, Carroll decided he might call it Alice’s Hour in Elfland. Another rejected idea: Alice Among the Fairies. Eventually, he went with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland instead. Probably for the best.
6. It satirizes newfangled theories about math.
Scholars have theorized that Carroll’s day job made its way into the book in the form of satire about 19th century innovations in mathematics, like imaginary numbers. For instance, the riddles like the one the Mad Hatter asks Alice about a raven being like a writing desk, “were a reflection on the increasing abstraction that was going on in mathematics in the 19th century,” as mathematician Keith Devlin told NPR in 2010. Carroll was a very conservative mathematician, and he found new forms of math emerging in the mid-1800s absurd compared to the algebra and Euclidian geometry he favored.
“Nothing but a pack of cards!" 1885. Image Credit: John Tenniel (1820–1914), Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014
7. The original illustrations were carved into wood.
Tenniel was a renowned illustrator by the time he took on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, known for his political cartoons. His drawings were first made on paper, then carved on woodblocks by engravers, which were then made into metal electrotype reproductions to be used in the printing process.
Carte de visite photograph of Lewis Carroll with lens, 1863. Image Credit:Photograph by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.
8. Wonderland wouldn’t have seemed so absurd to the real Alice.
“Some of the things that seem like nonsense to us would have made total sense to Alice and her sisters,” Vega explains. When the Mock Turtle says in the book that he receives lessons in drawing, sketching, and “fainting in coils” from an “old conger-eel, that used to come once a week,” the Liddells would have recognized their own art tutor, who gave the girls lessons in sketching, drawing, and oil painting. Much of the “nonsense” from the book was “based on people and places and experiences that these very real children had and would have been familiar with,” Vega says.
9. The Dodo is based on Carroll.
In the book, Carroll alludes to the 1862 boating trip that inspired the story by putting those present (Alice, her sisters, and Carroll's colleague) in the story as birds. Carroll was the Dodo, named after his real name, Charles Dodgson. As one story goes, the author had a tendency to stammer, introducing himself as “Do-do-dogson.” His sometimes debilitating stutter prevented him from becoming a priest, leading him to mathematics and writing instead.
A page from the original manuscript given to Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll.Image Credit: Lewis Carroll (1832–1898), Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, completed 13 September 1864, Illustrated manuscript. © The British Library Board.
10. The original manuscript almost never leaves London.
For its latest exhibition, New York City’s Morgan Library managed to get ahold of Carroll’s original manuscript of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”—the hand-written and illustrated version he gave to Alice Liddell. The book belongs to the British Library, and it rarely gets a vacation abroad. When it does, it’s a big deal, as The New York Times explains:
[I]t is accompanied by security measures whose details are cloaked in obfuscation befitting Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Jamie Andrews, the head of cultural engagement for the British Library, said that it was not checked on the flight over (‘We don’t freight things like that’), but he would not say exactly where it was on the plane or who exactly was with it It did cause a minor stir at the airport. "I showed the customs form to the customs guy at J. F. K.," Mr. Andrews said. The man looked at the declared value of the manuscript, a number Mr. Andrews would not divulge. "And he said, 'Jeez, son, what have you got in there, the crown jewels?' And in a sense it is our crown jewels."
“Off with herhead!” 1885. Image Credit: John Tenniel (1820–1914), Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr.,The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.
11. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was a pioneer of brand licensing.
Carroll was a savvy marketer of his story and characters. That’s perhaps the main reason the story is so well known today, even for those who haven’t actually read the book. “He’s one of the first authors working with manufacturers to bring out related products,” Vega says. He was all about the tie-ins. He designed a postage stamp case decorated with images of Alice and allowed her image to adorn cookie tins and other products. For readers eager to learn more about the origins of the book, he produced a facsimile of the original manuscript, a rare move for an author of his day. Later, he created a shorter version of the book for even younger readers. His 19th century business savvy foretold franchise-obsessed companies like Disney decades before their founding.
12. The book has never been out of print.
It has been translated into 176 languages. Its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, sold out within seven weeks of its publication.