The Beguiling Legacy of “Alice in Wonderland”


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The origins of Alice’s tumble into Wonderland are explored in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.Art work by Peter Blake / Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

Lately, when I can’t sleep, I take a book to the sofa and turn on a reading lamp. Insomnia is lonely—and often infuriating—and it’s a comfort to look at words on a page. Generally, the duller the words the better. In the long predawn hours, I’ve read histories of very old buildings; minor gods; remote, half-forgotten conflicts—and retained practically nothing. But retention is not the point. If you wait long enough—if you are tired enough—something magical will unfold. The sentences will begin to bend and blur together. They will filter into your dreams in surreal, and not unpleasant, ways. At a certain hour, reading becomes a psychedelic experience.

This is especially true of Lewis Carroll’s still trippy “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” from 1865, and its even odder sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”—both of which I’ve been reading late at night. In the morning, when other books have had their coffee and sobered up, Carroll’s works remain dreamlike and stubbornly nonsensical. “Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?” Carroll writes, as Alice plunges down the rabbit hole. The hole is lined with shelves (naturally), and she plucks a jar of orange marmalade from one as she passes. “I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth!” she frets. “How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards!”

The origins of Alice’s tumble into Wonderland and its long cultural afterlife—everything from Carroll’s tentative first sketches to cheery, Alice-themed advertisements for Guinness and tomato juice produced a hundred years later (“Welcome to a Wonderland of good drinking!”)—are the subject of a beguiling new exhibition, “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. I visited recently. Slipping inside a museum after months of the U.K.’s strict lockdown felt, even masked and distanced, like a revelation; everyone there was buzzing. The show begins down, down in the vast subterranean space of the Sainsbury Gallery, inside a room filled with the sounds of oars hitting the water. It is meant to evoke the now famous day that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who later adopted the pen name Lewis Carroll, rowed up the Thames with his friend Robinson Duckworth and the three Liddell sisters, who were neighbors of his: Lorina, Alice, then ten, and Edith. The legend goes like this: one blazing-hot day on the river, the children demanded entertainment and Dodgson obliged, spinning a fantastical tale as they went along. (The real story may be less neat: the weather on July 4th, 1862, the day of the boat trip, was “cool and rather wet,” according to some sources.) Alice asked Dodgson to write the story down for…

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