One summer afternoon in 1862, the mathematician Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) took the daughters of his dean at Christ Church, Oxford, on a boat trip down the Thames. He entertained the three sisters, Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell, with the whimsical story of Alice’s adventures in a magical world entered through a rabbit hole.
On their return to Oxford, Alice asked Carroll to write down the story. Carroll obliged and painstakingly created 37 illustrations, a task he found very difficult. He presented the handwritten manuscript to Alice as a Christmas present in 1864. His diary reveals that he considered Alice’s Hour in Elfland as a title, but settled on Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
Carroll’s original manuscript forms the centrepiece of an exhibition at the British Library celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. It is open until April 17.
The manuscript stayed in Alice’s possession until 1928, but after the death of her husband she was forced to sell it to pay death duties. Concerns were raised that the manuscript might be sold abroad, but not everybody shared this worry. J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, wrote to Julius Gibson, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum: “One is sorry if it must go to America but these matters disturb others (rightly or wrongly) more than they do me.”
It was sold at auction to an American dealer for the record price of £15,000 and changed hands several times over the next two decades until a group of wealthy benefactors decided it should be returned to Britain as a gesture of gratitude “in recognition of British resistance to Germany in the first years of the war”. In November 1948, the manuscript was presented to the British Museum by the Librarian of Congress and accepted by the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the nation.
One popular interpretation of Alice is that it is a political allegory. The history of the manuscript, however, tells a more overt — and heartwarming — story about the special relationship between the UK and the US.
This article was originally published in Standpoint Magazine Jan/ Feb 2016: http://standpointmag.co.uk/counterpoints-january-february-2016-alice-in-wonderland-marina-gerner