Many Victorian novels never make their way past high school or college reading lists. Soon after it was first published on November 26, 1865, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland struck a chord with almost everyone who read it.
Tolkien’s first fantasy work, which was an unpublished Beowulf translation, would not come for another sixty years. But that’s the subject of another “things you didn’t know” list. History is replete with lists like these. More to the point, Alice in Wonderland was a truly groundbreaking work that heavily influenced all future fantasy writers.
We choose to publish this article now because in his diary, on August 2nd Carroll will write: “Finally decided on the reprint of Alice, and that the first 2,000 shall be sold as waste paper.” In an introduction to a later edition of Alice in Wonderland, Carroll scholar Morton N Cohen writes that the author “would probably have been content to leave the first edition stand and, at most, would have wanted the later impressions printed more carefully. For him, it was simply a case of making concessions to his uncompromising illustrator.”
Most of us already know the general outline, structure, characters, and so on. Let’s get to know this seminal work a little bit better.
“Alice” is a Real Girl
It all started on the oddly-named “golden afternoon” of July 4, 1862. On that cloudy and drizzly day, as most days are in London, Carroll entertained the three young daughters of Oxford Vice-Chancellor Henry Liddell with an improvised story about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole and into another dimension.
Alice Liddell (1852 – 1934), the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s fictional character Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. She is posing as ‘The Beggar-Maid.’ (Photo by Lewis Carroll/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
One of those girls was — you guessed it — 10-year-old Alice Liddell. Probably since she was the title character, Alice asked Carroll to write the story down. His original handwritten manuscript is lost, but a second, longer version was published some three years later. Apropos of nothing, Alice Liddell was (much later) romantically linked with England’s Prince Leopold, who was Queen Victoria’s youngest son.
Mock Turtle Soup is Real
The “Mock Turtle” sounds like another completely made-up fantasy character, and the mock turtle soup of Chapter Nine seems even more inventive. Yet this food is real and was quite popular for a time in England.
English mathematician, writer and photographer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898) with Mrs George Macdonald and four children relaxing in a garden. (Photo by Lewis Carroll/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Then as now, turtle soup was quite a delicacy. Mock turtle soup uses various cow parts to mimic the texture and color of green turtle soup. The English version called for a boiled calf’s head with the hair scalded off. There are some American versions as well. Most of them use alligator meat or ground beef instead of turtles.
China Banned AIW For Its Use of Talking Animals
Many, many books have appeared on banned lists at various times for various reasons. Truth be told, many authors consider such status to be a badge of honor. AIW has popped up on such lists from time to time, mostly because of its references to drug use. These allusions were particularly controversial in the Victorian era.
From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewi (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
But in 1931, China’s Hunan Province banned the work because it contained talking animals. “Animals should not use human language, and it is disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level,” he opined. Who knows what the good governor would make of the fourteen (and counting) Land Before Time movies.
There’s a Children’s Version
In 1890, some thirty-five years after the original, Carroll published a children’s version of AIW. This version stressed the “children’s story” aspect of the novel as opposed to the more adult themes.
1933- Picture shows a scene from the movie, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, written by Lewis Carroll. Alice(Charlotte Henry) is shown seated between the two chess pieces in a chair with ‘Queen Alice’ written on it. Undated photo circa 1930s-40s.
It also used different illustrations that are usually colored and a little less threatening for “children age naught to five.”
The First Movie Appeared in 1903
Film versions of AIW are almost as old as motion pictures themselves. The first one is not known for its production values and is less than ten minutes long.
Actors Anne-Marie Mallik (as Alice) and Peter Sellers (as the King of Hearts), during the filming of a BBC production of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ in Albury Park near Guildford, UK, 24th June 1966. (Photo by Ted West/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Young Alice looks like she is about forty years old, and the Cheshire Cat is an extremely disinterested real cat.
Queen Victoria Wrote AIW (Maybe)
It’s well known that the Queen embraced the novel wholeheartedly. Some commentators believe that her enthusiasm may have been the pride of authorship and not literary affinity. They point out that, as mentioned earlier, the “golden afternoon” was anything but.
(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Moreover, they insist, it’s no coincidence that Victoria’s youngest daughter, Alice, was married on July 1, 1862. They say the story itself is an allegory of Victoria’s early life; for example, the White Rabbit is a stand-in for Victoria’s father Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, KG, KP, GCB, GCH, and PC.
Lewis Carroll is a Fake Name
We definitely know that Lewis Carroll did not write AIW. That was a nom de plume for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Etymologically speaking, the names are similar. The Latin Carolus (“Charles” in English) is a lot like the Irish surname of Carroll.
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JUNE 30, 2016: A display themed on the tea party episode in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll at the 5th Moscow Flower Show in Muzeon Park. Sergei Fadeichev/TASS (Photo by Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images)
But Charles Lutwidge Dodgson sounds like someone who works with scientific algorithms, and Lewis Carroll sounds like a fantasy book author. So, there you have it.
Carroll Saw the World in the Wonderland Way
Misperception of height and size is one recurring theme in the book. Carroll himself suffered from this disorienting neuropsychological condition which was later termed, appropriately enough, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.
(Original Caption) Original photo of Alice Liddell taken by the author Lewis Carroll in 1858. The 7-year-old girl was Carroll’s muse for his famous children’s story, ‘Alice in Wonderland’. (Photo by Ferdaus Shamim/Sygma via Getty Images)
AiWS is especially common among hallucinogenic drug users and people with migraines. If the condition is genetic, it often appears in childhood and its symptoms dissipate over time. Carroll was one of the unfortunate few who dealt with dysmetropsia for most of his life.
The Illustrator Almost Torpedoed the Book
Like many artistic works, AIW almost did not make it past the drawing board. Noted English illustrator John Tenniel hated the way his pictures looked in the first pre-publication manuscript.
Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Dee, Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, Hand-Colored Illustration by John Tenniel, circa 1872. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
He insisted on such extensive revisions that Carroll spent the equivalent of half his annual salary to comply. That was a painful investment at the time, but it turned out to be very worthwhile. To many, the final form of Tenniel’s pictures are almost as enduring as Carroll’s words.
The Book Has Been Continually in Print
The Carroll family is raking in the royalties, as AIW is one of the few books that has never gone out of print.
‘Off with her head! Alice and her Red Queen’, c1910. From Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. [W. Butcher & Sons, London, c1910]Artist John Tenniel. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
That’s perhaps the greatest testament to the novel’s originality as well as its enduring popularity and influence. The book’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, sold out in just seven weeks. So far, AIW has been translated into 176 languages.