Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 09.59.01 Image via Alice-in-wonderland.net

It's now 150 years since the Reverend Charles Dodgson, a shy, stammering Oxford don, published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. The origins of the book are legendary: in the summer of 1862, Dodgson (together with his friend, Robinson Duckworth) took the daughters of the Dean of Christchurch, Lorina, Edith and Alice Liddell, on a rowing expedition up the River Thames.

To keep the girls amused, Dodgson told a story, which, over the following years developed into the two books which we all now know and love: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Alice begged him to write it down, and, for the Christmas of 1864 he presented her with the very first hand-written illustrated manuscript, titled at that time, Alice's Adventures Underground. The rest, of course, is literary history.

The exhibition opens with a sequence of wooden display boxes, mirrors and illustrative blow-ups placed at strategic intervals on the open mezzanine landing off the main staircase- supposed, I think, to suggest Alice's descent down the rabbit hole. Except, that either due to a lack of signposting or idiocy on our part, or even, perhaps, because of a deliberate attempt at Carrollian Nonsense ("Don't Go This Way!" ➔) we managed to enter the exhibition through a narrow side passage, ruining the effect.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 09.59.24 Dodgson’s original hand-written manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Underground, 1863
Image via MentalFloss

Star exhibit, and deservedly so, is the original hand-written manuscript of 1863, given by Charles Dodgson as a Christmas present to Alice Liddell. It's a privilege to see it. It's a wonderful thing. It's written in Dodgson's neat, childish hand and illustrated with his curiously endearing amateur drawings in the Pre-Raphaelite style, later to be re-interpreted so brilliantly by Sir John Tenniel.

Alice Liddell kept the manuscript until 1928, when death duties forced her to put it up for auction at Sotheby's. In 1948 a group of rich benefactors bought the manuscript and presented it to the British people in 'gratitude for their gallantry against Hitler in the Second World War'.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 10.06.10 Arthur Rackham, Alice in Wonderland, 1907
Image via Exit109

The exhibition looks like it's been set up in a narrow school corridor, flat lighting et al, and battling against the Sunday afternoon hordes we struggled to peer inside the various glass cases dotted about the place.

Before I get too mean, I must point out that the exhibition is free of charge, and has been funded with the help of a generous benefactor, so to expect, say, the outstanding visual presentation of the recent Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition might be unreasonable. Still.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 09.59.50 Ralph Steadman, Alice in Wonderland, 1973
Image via Brainpickings

Further highlights of the exhibition include the various later editions of the books. One of the fascinations of the Alice cult is how the books are re-interpreted by different generations for their own time. Like Tenniel, Arthur Rackham depicts Alice (1907) as a proper little English girl, but her Wonderland is an intense nightmare of claustrophobic perspective.

Almost seventy years later, Ralph Steadman's subversive Alice in Wonderland (1973) has the White Rabbit as a harassed commuter, the Cheshire Cat as a celebrity obsessed television presenter and the Red Queen's gardeners as bolshy, flat-capped Union men wielding paint brushes.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 09.59.59 Jonathan Miller’s Alice, BBC television adaptation, 1966
Image via uow.edu.au

Salvador Dali's psychedelic Alice (1969), on the other hand, creates a world of distorted colour and surreal flora and fauna, mirrored in some way by the brilliant Jonathan Miller television adaptation of 1966. Here the ambience of a languid, spaced-out, trippy English summer afternoon is created with great success: The eye of Julia Margaret Cameron set to the sound of Ravi Shankar's sitar.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 10.00.08 Alice in Wonderland Pop-Up Shop, British Library
Image via British Library

Much easier to find (and so representative of our own time) is the beautifully decorated Alice in Wonderland Pop-Up Shop: a temple to Mammon selling every- and any- trinket connected with Alice and her friends. I asked the girl behind the till (not unreasonably, I think) if I could buy an exhibition catalogue (or at the very least, a leaflet) and she seemed surprised. There isn't one. But if you're in the market for a White Rabbit Christmas Tree ornament, you won't be disappointed. Hurray! Don't be Late! With any luck, there might be a few left before Christmas.

Alice in Wonderland, British Library, 96, Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB, 20 November- 17 April. Entrance Free

Comment