Curiouser and Curiouser: Alice at the British Library

This week’s blog post is brought to us by Sai Prasanna, a Master’s student at Cambridge researching Alice in Wonderland-inspired apps and videogames. Apart from that, still waiting to receive her Hogwarts letter.

 

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“And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?”

This line stands testament to Lewis Carroll’s understanding of books which appeal to children. The celebration of the hundred and fiftieth publishing anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is incomplete without a visit to the Alice in Wonderland pop-up shop and exhibition at the British Library. Contemporary interpretations of Carroll’s classic have adapted Alice into contemporary culture, engendering what can be called the ‘Alice phenomenon’ or the ‘Alice industry’. From textual adaptations to television series, movies (seriously, can’t wait for Disney’s Through the Looking-Glass to release!!), theatrical performances, and video games, the commercialization of Wonderland has pushed its aesthetic boundaries beyond the pages of the original book. The exhibition shows how Carroll’s work has been reinterpreted, re-imagined, and re-illustrated through the years.

ALICE ACROSS THE AGES

The Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the British Library displayed numerous editions of Wonderland starting from Carroll’s original handwritten edition and Tenniel’s iconic illustrated edition to Arthur Rackman’s illustrated edition, Salvador Dali’s illustrated edition, Robert Ingpen’s illustrated edition, Robert Sabuda’s pop-up edition and Helen Oxenbury’s contemporary illustrated edition. The exhibition explores how Alice has captured the imaginations of both children and adults for so many years.

 

What fascinated me most about the exhibition was the way it was structured. The layout of the exhibition was simultaneously designed like the inside of the book and a maze combined. There was an entry point, an exit point (though I personally would have preferred to crawl into or slide down a tunnel), and heart shaped arrows pointed to the right direction. Each section of the exhibition was named after a chapter in the book, characterized by memorable scenes from the book such as the Mad Tea Party, and featured an interactive touch-screen television with voice-activation which narrated the chapter content. It allowed the user (who were mostly children) to navigate through different sections such as Lewis Carroll’s biography, Alice Liddell’s biography, Tenniel’s illustrations, and the publishing history of Wonderland. The design of the exhibition was in keeping with the episodic narrative of the original book. Even the original illustrated manuscript was digitized and made accessible on the screen. The walls of the sections were painted with famous quotations from the book such as “curiouser and curiouser”, “we’re all mad here”, and “Off with their heads!”. Overall, the Alice in Wonderland exhibition was like a fun-house with all the fun and none of the scariness.

ALICE IN POP-UP LAND

The pop-up shop at the British Library selling Alice-inspired stationery (I got the Macmillan Alice 100 Post Cards), accessories, clothing (too loose to fit me), and home décor (too expensive) was inspired by the earliest drawings of Alice and her Wonderland friends. It offered a relaxing trip into the rabbit-hole and a chance to join the Mad Hatter’s tea party. It brought to life Tenniel’s original illustrations using cut-out graphics set out on a chequered floor vinyl print.

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Attending the Mad Tea Party with the March Hare, Mad Hatter, and the Dormouse

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Though Carroll’s text and Tenniel’s illustrations remain essentially unaltered and form the basis for any re-visionings surrounding the original, the pop-up shop brings the story and characters alive in a visually attractive style rather than verbal with three-dimensional constructions of Tenniel’s illustrations.

The Alice- inspired artefacts are proof that a Victorian children’s book can be technologically transformed and reinscribed in various formats to reflect the contemporary world of childhood culture. I still remember my dad reading aloud an abridged version of Alice’s Adventures of Wonderland as a bedtime story when I was six years old. When I was eight years old, I narrated the story at a story narration competition and won first place. Till today, I have the seventeen-year-old Wonderland book as part of my children’s books collection and I go back to it when I’m in need of inspiration.

My delightful experience at the pop-up shop can only be described in Alice’s own words, “When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!” Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to playing Alice apps and videogames for my dissertation. 😛

 

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