Thursday, August 15, 2019

Go Ask Alice (about Wonderland)

Oxford, England may have recently gone crazy for Harry Potter, but another literary figure connected with this charming college town has a much longer pedigree. It was back in 1865 that an Oxford mathematician named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson published, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, a small book called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The story of a little girl named Alice who slips down a rabbit-hole and meets a number of outlandish creatures (a caterpillar smoking a hookah, a totally mad Hatter, the dangerous Queen of Hearts) evolved out of the tales he told three little girls as they rowed up the River Isis from Oxford to the village of Godstow, five miles away. The girls were the daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Oxford’s Christ Church College. (There were ten little Liddells in all, of whom ten-year-old Alice was the fourth.) After the boat trip, Alice begged Dodgson to write down the marvelous yarn he’d spun, He borrowed her name for his heroine, and dedicated the published book to her.

Today Dodgson and Alice Liddell are honored by Christ Church College with a special stained glass “Alice window.” It can be found high on the wall of the formal dining hall that was once the seat of Parliament during England’s seventeenth-century Civil War. At the center of one panel is a portrait of the actual Alice. Surprise! Instead of  the long, straggly blonde hair of Tenniel’s famous illustrations, she wears a neat brown bob. Other panels include memorable images of familiar “Alice” characters. One is the White Rabbit, clutching his pocket watch. Legend has it that this rabbit, forever anxious about being on time for some very important date, is Dodgson’s comic portrait of Alice’s own father, who was known to be continually checking his timepiece. .

There’s one more Oxford place that provides a link to Alice in Wonderland. The venerable Oxford Museum of Natural History, founded in the Victorian era, contains the world’s best-preserved remains of the long-extinct dodo. There’s not much to see, merely the head and foot of a single bird. But the museum also displays a 1651 painting of a dodo by a Flemish artist, and it’s probable that Dodgson, a frequent museum visitor, used this as the basis for his  wonderland dodo. Today display cases honor Alice as well as the dodo, showing off a taxidermied dormouse and even providing a stuffed white rabbit with his own tiny pocket watch.

It goes without saying that Hollywood has always loved the Alice stories. Back in 1933, Paramount Pictures introduced an elaborate black & white version, featuring such stars as Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, and W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty. Disney’s inevitable animated version, from 1951, of course favored the sweet over the scary side of the story, emphasizing how it takes place (in the words of one of the film’s songs) all on a golden afternoon.  In 2010, director Tim Burton took the opposite tack. Updating Alice into a nineteen-year-old (Mia Wasikowska) on the brink of marriage to a dunce of a nobleman, he returns her to a phantasmagoric 3-D Wonderland where she must join forces with an outrageous Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to defeat the villainous Red Queen (an eye-popping Helena Bonham Carter)and her Jabberwocky, thus returning the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to her throne.  I admit I’ve only seen the trailer for this film, but that was enough to steer me away from Burton’s hectic, exhausting take on what Lewis Carroll wrought on a golden afternoon in Oxfordshire. 

Alice is in the top left panel

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