Written by Lindsay Hargrave
Illustrations courtesy of Google Images (Public Domain)
The elevator ride up to the second floor of the Rosenbach is hardly a rabbit hole. Yet upon arrival, the three small rooms which house the “Down the Rabbit Hole” exhibit transform into a book nerd’s Wonderland, with just about every aspect of Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice books to explore.
The exhibit is actually made up of three smaller exhibits. “We have a very large Lewis Carroll collection, much larger than expressed here. The different parts of it are things about Charles Dodgson [Lewis Carroll is a pseudonym], the book itself, different editions, and different things that are related to Charles Dodgson,” said Judy Guston, the exhibit’s curator.
The first part recounts the journey of the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland manuscript to Philadelphia in the possession of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, famously called “The Man Who Bought Alice.” Dr. Rosenbach purchased the manuscript at auction for 15,400 pounds, the equivalent of about one million dollars in today’s money, making it the most expensive manuscript purchase at the time.
“Part of the story that we’re telling in this room is the fact that he wanted to put down as much money as it would take to buy this manuscript,” Guston said. “As soon as he purchased it the first time, had already, in people’s minds, become part of the story.”
However, Dr. Rosenbach could not afford to keep it, so he eventually sold it to Eldrige Johnson, along with some other original Alice memorabilia. Dr. Rosenbach eventually purchased it again, only to finally give it to the British Library after World War II, where it remains today.
While not as exciting as a disappearing, smiling cat, this portion of the exhibit includes some noteworthy objects, such as the facsimile of the original draft with replicas of Dodgson’s repetitive illustrations and a chair which the real Alice Liddell sat in while attending lunch with Eldridge Johnson.
The next room gives the backstory of Charles Dodgson as a writer, mathematician, logician and all-around Renaissance Man. “We wanted to look here at what made up all of these ideas, where they came from, how this book came to be from inside his head,” Guston said.
Although Dodgson is easily most famous for his literary works, he dedicated most of his life to mathematics and to being an archdeacon in the Anglican church. When read closely, one can tell that the Alice books are abundant with mathematical riddles and equations. “[Mathematics] is such an interesting part of his books that it’s worth pointing out. It really gives the books a lot of color, and it’s one of the things that a lot of people find most enjoyable,” Guston said. “This is a work that is based on his day job.”
The final component of the exhibit does not contain any archival material, but instead gives examples and opportunities for viewers to try their hand at Dodgson’s various games and riddles. For example, the Rosenbach constructed what they believe to be the first ever circular billiards table. “We know that Dodgson had rules for circular billiards, but we don’t know if he ever played,” Guston said. Other games include mirror-writing, doublets (a word game in which one transforms one word into another letter by letter using as few turns as possible), chess with alternative rules and various riddles.
For the first week of the exhibit, the original manuscript made another appearance at the Rosenbach, live and in person, from the British Library. “It really is breathtaking to see. The drawings are so very different from the Tenniel drawings that are in the book; they’re really quite personal and beautiful,” Guston said.
The manuscript drew a sizable amount of viewers of all backgrounds and walks of life, each one with their own unique relationship with the Alice books, particularly parents with young children. “Parents would often explain to their kids about ‘The first time I read Alice’ or ‘My mother read it to me’ or ‘This is the first time I saw the movie.’ It was really interesting to hear the breadth of first experiences that people had with Alice. I think that like a lot of us, the first experience with an influential book is actually through someone else, which is a really interesting take on how books or ideas of books are transmitted from generation to generation,” Guston said. “In fact, Alice is a really important book. It lives next to the Bible and Shakespeare as being the most quoted.”