It was on 4th July 1862 that a river outing on a sunny day in Oxford gave Charles L. Dodgson – better known as Lewis Carroll – the inspiration to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Travelling downriver with the Liddell family, from Folly Bridge to Godstow, Dodgson (Dean of Christ Church, Oxford and lecturer in Mathematics), made up a story along the way about a bored little girl called Alice (after Alice Liddell), who goes looking for an adventure. At Alice’s request, Dodgson agreed to write the story down. Although he began to work on it the very next day, it took him two and a half years to complete.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was eventually published in 1865. It was instantly loved by both children and adults; consequently the first print run of books ran out very quickly. So what was it that appealed to readers and made Alice such an instant and enduring hit? There is no question that the story is quirky, almost sinister, and it could be this quality that holds the greatest appeal. It is, after all, the story of a girl trapped in a dream world where people are executed simply for planting the wrong coloured roses for the Queen of Hearts, where food and drink can alter your body size and everyone seems just a little bit mad.
Both Queen Victoria and the young Oscar Wilde can be counted amongst the books’ earliest readers, it has never been out of print in 153 years, and has been translated into over 178 languages. Perhaps its initial popularity can be put down to it being the first children’s book published which wasn’t written to teach a lesson. There is no moral tale here. It was just written with the enjoyment of the story itself in mind.
Along with the reading of the book itself, there are many film adaptations of Alice’s story. The most regularly viewed are the Walt Disney film, with its distinctive bright colours and accompanying music, and the contrasting darker version by Tim Burton, which gives more tense take on Alice.
Not only has Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, been made into a number of movies and television shows, it has also, since its copyright expired in 1907, come to life in comics, computer games, appeared on t-shirts, numerous illustrated works, and spawned a whole host of accompanying merchandise that increases in popularity year on year.
Something about Alice appeals to part of everyone’s imagination. It is silly yet serious, joyous yet disturbing, and ridiculous enough for you never to forget that, deep down, it’s all a dream.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.