Saturday 25 July 2015

Review: Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

Today the Secret Victorianist fell down the rabbit hole at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, visiting their special exhibition on the publication history of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), one of the most loved and enduringly popular novels in the English language.

One of Tenniel's illustrations
At the heart of the retrospective is a unique exhibit (on loan from the British Library) – the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground that Dodgson (Carroll) gave to Alice Liddell (the inspiration for Alice) in 1864. This manuscript does not include some incidents that were to become central to Wonderland as we know it (for instance, the duchess whose baby is transformed into a pig), so is especially valuable in demonstrating the evolution of the text from an extempore oral narrative composed on a sunny day in Oxford to a published novel. The manuscript also contains Carroll’s original illustrations, before he turned to the talents of Punch cartoonist John Tenniel for his now iconic renderings of Alice.

Alice's Adventures Under Ground manuscript
The exhibition does a good job of interesting visitors in questions of bibliography – no doubt largely because of the highly visual focus. The illustrations, in various levels of completion, and from several different hands, serve as a beautiful guide to the evolution of a book – they alone tell the story how a tale born from the imagination of one man or a woman will be transformed by the influencers it meets on its journey to publication and beyond.

One of Tenniel's illustrations
Along with illustrations, early print editions, and the Under Ground manuscript, the exhibition also puts on show: personal items belonging to Alice Liddell at the time of the story’s conception, Dodgson’s correspondence pertaining to the publication of the text, other children’s books originating from the period, and some pieces of contemporary Alice-themed ephemera (my favourite was a Wonderland-styled biscuit tin). They also displayed scenes from the novel’s first film adaptation, in 1903 (inserted here).

The exhibition title had led me to think there might have been a greater emphasis on the text’s reception history further into the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, but, while this is rich territory for discussion, (perhaps appropriately) it is not the focus at the Morgan. The early years of Wonderland give a fascinating glimpse into the publishing landscape of the mid-nineteenth century, appealing to any book-lover. So visit to discover how Carroll’s Alice was realised and became a milestone in children’s publishing, or for an accessible introduction to the study of bibliography.

First edition: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland is running until 11th October 2015 at the Morgan Library and Museum. Entrance to the museum is $19 for adults.

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Do you know of any other NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should review? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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