The titular heroine of Lewis Carroll’s whimsical classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass has changed to reflect the aesthetics of the times outside her fictional word. The fantastical nature of the story allows a certain freedom of temporality: although the narrative was written to occur in Victorian Britain, there are no specific indicators of the year, and the story could just as easily have been set in the twenty-first century. The changing visual depictions of Alice reflect this sense of timelessness. Having a contemporary-looking Alice makes it easy for younger audiences to relate to her and helps to explain Wonderland’s enduring popularity.
First published in 1865, Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations imagine Alice in a contemporary mid-Victorian pinafore, apron, and stockings. Tenniel’s depiction of Alice was the standard for the rest of the 1800s, but by the turn of the century, when the book went out of copyright, other illustrators reimagined the tale. Bessie Gutmann created Nouveau Alice in 1907, who wears a white, high-necked dress with full, long sleeves; her hair is long, swept up, and adorned with a flower.
In the 1920s Alice became a sporty flapper. Willy Pogany’s 1929 illustrations depict a lanky Alice, somewhat older than previous representations, wearing a short, plaid skirt, short sleeve top with a tie at the neck, and knee socks. Her hair is bobbed and boyish, as per the androgynous Jazz Age fashion.
Mid-century Alice reverts to the traditional, much like popular culture at the time. Disney released the animated Alice in Wonderland film in 1951, in which Alice dons a blue dress, white apron, and a black ribbon in her hair, very similar to Tenniel’s depiction. Subsequent illustration from the period shows Disney’s influence.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Alice adapts to the fashion of the period. One 1970 edition puts an older-looking Alice in a hot pink minidress with a Brigitte Bardot-esque bouffant; another illustration from the same year makes Alice look like she walked off of the set of The Brady Bunch, in a floral-accented minidress, knee socks, and long, straight hair.
The continued success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is related to its ability to stay relevant and fresh to generations of readers. The story itself is not rooted in any particular temporal setting, and thus Alice has the ability to change her style to look like her readers. Although Alice was created in the Victorian era, she is anything but drab and prim: she is, more than many other literary heroines, thoroughly modern.
See examples of some of these book covers in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6. Share “Thoroughly Modern Alice” with #aliceinaustin.
2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Since its publication in 1865, the book has never been out of print. It has been translated into countless languages and has become a work that truly transcends the time and culture in which it was written.
In honor of the book’s legacy the Harry Ransom Center presents Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This exhibition follows the evolution of Carroll’s story through time, around the world, and across different types of media, from stage and screen to children’s toys. The exhibition offers something for everyone and provides interactive opportunities throughout. Highlights of the exhibition include a rare copy of the 1865 “suppressed” edition, Carroll’s own photograph of Alice, Edith, and Lorina Liddell, the sisters who inspired the story, and Salvador Dalí’s 1969 illustrations.
View the Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandvideo preview.
Museums and libraries around the world are joining in the observance of Alice’s sesquicentennial. In New York City, the Morgan Library & Museum will display Dodgson’s original manuscript (on loan from the British Library) in its upcoming exhibition Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, while Vassar College Archives and Special Collections Library will exhibit an early printing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland alongside other works of fantasy from the period. John Tenniel’s original drawings will be shown at Harvard’s Houghton Library, and Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library will exhibit Carroll’s letters to publisher Alexander MacMillan and a first edition of the book from his library.
Browse upcoming Alice-related events on this list, compiled by The Lewis Carroll Society and the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.
Share your exhibition experience with #aliceinaustin.
Sir John Tenniel. Dalí. Yayoi Kusama. What do these artists of vastly different styles, mediums, and artistic movements have in common? Each, along with many other artists, has tried their hand at illustrating Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a tale so whimsical it demands illustrations. Alice appeals to such a broad range of artists because the creative quality of the story gives artists freedom to interpret the look of the story in any way they please, and the book’s quirky sense of fun is irresistible.
The novel’s first illustrator was none other than its author. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—alias Lewis Carroll—created a handwritten manuscript with 37 illustrations for the story’s muse, Alice Liddell, after she asked him to write down the fantastical story he told her one lazy summer afternoon on a boat ride. Although somewhat amateurish, the ink illustrations depict a sweet, pretty Alice, not unlike the famous Tenniel illustrations. Indeed, Tenniel, a famous Victorian political cartoonist, and Dodgson worked closely together in creating the now-classic illustrations for the first published edition.
Tenniel’s classical and rather prim imagining of Alice remained the standard throughout the nineteenth century and still remains the most recognizable Alice illustration today. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that other illustrators tried their hands at Alice. These illustrations reflect the aesthetic of their time. Mabel Lucie Attwell’s 1910 rendering of Alice and Margaret W. Tarrant’s 1916 version are sweet and feminine and still very much geared toward a young audience.
By the middle of the century, illustrations of Alice became more experimental. German illustrator Wiltraud Jasper’s 1958 version is edgy and minimal, all in black and red. In 1969, iconic surrealist Salvador Dalí put his spin on Carroll’s story, creating a dreamy, abstract, and characteristically melty Wonderland in a melancholy color palate.
More recently, Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama has re-imagined Alice in her signature polka dots in a 2012 Penguin publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kusama steers away from the “classic” scenes of illustrations and instead focuses on details. For instance, the Mad Tea Party chapter features a red-and-black polka-dotted bowler hat instead of the traditional scene of the eccentric cast of characters tucking into high tea at a long table.
At the very onset of her story, Alice muses to herself about the importance of illustrations: “‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without any pictures?’” What use indeed? Would Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be the classic book and cultural phenomenon that it is without pictures? Likely not—both readers and illustrators alike have fun with the creative freedom offered by the Alice books.
See examples of some of these illustrations in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6. Share with #aliceinaustin.
The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows
“Curiouser and curiouser!” is what Alice cries when she suddenly stretches to more than nine feet tall, “like the largest telescope that ever was,” in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. An illustration by John Tenniel depicts this moment from the opening of Chapter II, which can be seen in one of the images etched into the windows of the Harry Ransom Center. In the drawing, we see Alice’s large, startled eyes and open mouth expressing her surprise at her predicament. Most suggestive of her increasing height is the greatly disproportionate length of her neck, whose Victorian collar, though stretched upward, remains properly buttoned. Tenniel succeeds in manifesting Carroll’s playful imagination within this bizarre image, yet he retains a delicate beauty in the artful rendering of her hands and the folds of her apron and puffed sleeves. Tenniel was as appreciative as Carroll himself of the aesthetic beauty of childhood, and his pairing of humor with grace matches the author’s own intent for his title character. A mixture of playfulness with sincere, human perplexities is central to Carroll’s Alice books, which—like telescopic Alice—have grown so popular that they remain not just favorites in literature but are ingrained into much of our culture.
The man behind the pseudonym Lewis Carroll is the Oxford mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. On July 4, 1852, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth took the three daughters of his dean—Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell—for a boat ride on the river. For their entertainment, he invented stories as they rowed, including characters based on each of the boat’s passengers. Carroll folded the girls’ excited suggestions into the plotline and improvised the rest. Once the excursion was over, ten-year-old Alice requested that Carroll write down the story for her, so she might always be able to read it. After her insistent pestering, he did write it down, and two-and-a-half years later he presented Alice with a leather-bound manuscript, including his own illustrations, as a Christmas gift. The Liddell girls loved the manuscript, and as more children read the story, Carroll discovered its wide appeal. Literary friends, having delighted in reading the author’s drafts of the tale, urged him to publish. In October of 1863, Carroll secured the commitment of London publisher Alexander Macmillan to have his book printed.
Although at first he intended to refine and use his own drawings for the book, Carroll finally acknowledged his sketches’ limitations and set out to commission the work of a talented illustrator. The head caricaturist of Punch magazine, John Tenniel, was an obvious choice because of his renowned reputation and aesthetic sensibilities that matched Carroll’s own. Introduced by a mutual friend—the eminent dramatist Tom Taylor—Carroll met with Tenniel in January 1864 and petitioned him to create the artwork for his book. In the subsequent months, Carroll eagerly worked to expand and polish his texts, readying them for printing. Tenniel’s progress, however, was slow, and several planned deadlines passed before his blocks were completed. A first run of 2,000 copies was printed in June 1865, and a sample was delivered to Macmillan. Carroll was pleased with the finished product, and according to his diary (July 15, 1865), he inscribed “20 or more copies of Alice to go as presents to various friends.” Yet Tenniel was not satisfied with the print quality of his images and requested that the books be run again. Although the printing costs were at Carroll’s own expense, he agreed to scrap the first run and hire a new printer. Carroll had already distributed almost 50 copies, though, so he begged for their return. Ultimately, he received back all but 15. He tore out the inscription pages and then donated the books to a children’s hospital. Only 23 copies of this abandoned first edition exist today, one of which resides at the Ransom Center. The second batch of printed books pleased both author and illustrator, so Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, now dated 1866, was at last released. Children and adults alike were drawn to the delightful fantasy of Carroll’s words and Tenniel’s imagery, and the novel became an instant success. By 1872, Carroll published a sequel—Through the Looking-Glass—again with illustrations by Tenniel. The Alice books grew to immense popularity, helping to solidify the careers of both Carroll and Tenniel. Carroll continued to publish new stories, verse, and scholarly treatises, and he remained at Oxford until his death in 1898. Tenniel went on to have a prolific career as a cartoonist at Punch and was knighted in 1893 for his contributions as a cartoonist, the first one in his profession to be so recognized.
As for the Alice books, they continue to thrive long after the passing of their creators. Now translated into over 70 languages and adapted across many forms of media, from theater to coloring books, Carroll’s fairy tale enjoys a lasting influence. As biographer Morton N. Cohen has stated, “Next to the Bible and Shakespeare, they are the books most widely and most frequently translated and quoted.” Whereas most children’s literature before it had primarily been written as moral instruction, Carroll’s stories of Wonderland broke tradition by “champion[ing] the child in the child’s confrontation with the adult world,” Cohen claims. As new generations emerge, Carroll’s story remains relevant and comforting in its message of overcoming the obstacles inherent in childhood and beyond.
The Ransom Center holds several collections related to Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. The Warren Weaver collection contains first editions of Carroll’s poetry, fiction, and scholarly writings on mathematics and logic, as well as translations of the books into several languages and some of Carroll’s personal correspondence. One of the rare books in this collection is a copy of the original 1865 edition called the “India Alice,” which made its way from a Victorian hospital in England to a used bookshop in Bangalore, India, before resurfacing in 1961. The Byron and Susan Sewell collection comprises twentieth-century editions of the Alice books, as well as secondary adaptations, parodies, and nonfiction that the original publications inspired. Such a rich assortment of materials provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the genesis of this cherished tale and the man who imagined it.
Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.