Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 09.59.01 Image via

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
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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
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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