Last weekend, Ellie & I ventured to the V&A in South Kensington to see the much talked about immersive experience “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser.”
There were no more than a dozen people queuing at the time we arrived. Two minutes later we were inside the building and walking down the stairs to the reception area.
SETTING THE SCENE
The first major room is not yet immersive. Instead it features lots of artefacts more like a traditional museum. They are aimed at shedding light on the era when Alice in Wonderland was written, the life of the author. We learn how the books were very much a collaborative effort that was not in any way limited to putting words on paper and then in print. Even this first room is already showing how Alice has changed the world, how huge her impact is.
CHARLES LUTWIDGE DODGSON
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who later on used Lewis Carroll as his pen name, was a polymath and professor of mathematics at Christ Church college in Oxford. The pen name is based on the Latin versions of his middle and first name (Charles Lutwidge became Ludovic Carolus, then turned into Lewis Carroll).
His circle of friends included the most celebrated actress of her time, Ellen Terry, the famous physicist Michael Faraday, and the painter Sir John Everett Millais. The wider social circle included most everyone who was famous and living in or near Oxford at the time such as Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). [Chapter 2, The Pool of Tears]
He was also very close with the dean of his college, Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church, who later on became the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, the overall head honcho.
However, the story begins much earlier. You can see a letter little Charles’s headmaster at Richmond Grammar School (a boarding school) sent to Charles’s parents. The good man mentions the student’s constant endeavours to create new words, usually in a humorous context. He assures the parents that this will only be a fad and nothing to worry about.
“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”
You can see a few board and card games young Charles came up with to entertain his siblings. Some of them are involving maths and show his interest in philosophy.
Dodgson spent a lot of time with Charles Liddell’s children. Alice was his favourite. She’s the one who asked Dodgson to write a whole book about Wonderland, not just a little story here and there. Alice Liddell, without any doubt, inspired the Alice in Wonderland character. Ms Liddell became a celebrity as a result of having been the inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Her family had of course already been well-connected and well-off. Alice’s mom tried to marry all her daughters off to royals. This earned her the nickname “Kingfisher” from Dodgson. She even managed to get Queen Victoria’s son Prince Leopold to court Alice, and one exhibit is a letter from him to Alice. Naturally Alice also met Queen Victoria in person.
CHILDREN – FROM NECESSARY EVIL TO SOMETHING GOOD
When Alice in Wonderland was first published in 1865, the Victorians’ attitude towards little persons had just changed. Obviously not if the children were poor. Then they would still be sent down the coal mines for 16-hour shifts six days a week. Unsurprisingly, for rich kids, the situation was different.
William Wordsworth, half a century earlier, had found nothing wrong with keeping his children in a windowless, tiny room without heating during harsh winters. We had learned this during a trip to Dove Cottage. Children had largely been seen as necessary evil to preserve the Empire. Now they started to be seen as something that was somehow good. While Puritans associated children with the original sin, they were now seen as something innocent.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Usually there was still very little contact between parents and children. The boys were dumped at boarding school and the girls locked up with their respective governess. England was of course still English and Victorians remained Victorian.
That said, there was a more than merely academic interest in creating an environment for children to flourish in. To stir their curiosity, to develop their talents, to give them inspiration. It was no longer seen as ridiculous to care about the welfare of kids.
THE MAD HATTER AT SURREY COUNTY ASYLUM
Curiosity had become a bigger thing in society during the first half of the 19th Century. For example, it was very common for sanatoriums to open their doors to the spectating public for a shilling or two. The mentally unhealthy would be paraded in front of the amused audiences similar to the traditional freak shows at the circus.
“There is a place, like no place on earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger. Some say, to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter. Which, luckily, I am.” ― Lewis Carroll
We learn that it is highly likely that Dodgson visited Surrey County Asylum, where his uncle worked, and that one of the patients there inspired his Mad Hatter.
THE AGE OF CURIOSITY, DISCOVERY, INVENTION & EXPLORATION
During the middle of the century, those practices were stopped and patient health became the primary objective. By this time, the age of curiosity, discovery, invention & exploration was in full swing. Dinosaur bones were dug up right, left, and centre just like ruins of ancient civilisations. The British public learned about more recently extinct, often funny-looking, unlikely animals like the dodo.
TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE
There was no British Standard or Greenwich Mean Time. Bristol was in another time zone than London. To this day Christ Church College’s clock remains 5 minutes and 2 seconds behind GMT. Oxford University never adjusted the clock when time was standardised 15 years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published.
“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
BUTTERFLY COLLECTIONS, GLOBES, SPHERES, TELESCOPES, AND CAMERAS
For the middle classes it became chic to have butterfly collections, globes, solar system (‘armillary’) spheres, telescopes, and highly sophisticated time pieces, all of which you can see in the Alice exhibition. Photo cameras were still rare, but Dodgson became an early adopter and pioneer in this field. We see an Ottewill folding box camera of the same make as his and we learn how complicated and time-consuming the process of taking pictures was in the 19th Century.
The whole controversy around Dodgson’s child photography and unusual interest in children is kept tightly under the carpet. My gut feeling is that this is a great judgement call by the curator.
One of the most interesting take-aways of this exhibition to me was that the quintessential English afternoon tea was only made popular in the 1830s by the Duchess of Bedford. We learn that Dodgson picked up on the ever-increasing, extreme popularity of these tea parties and their ridiculously complicated rules and etiquette.
GAMES SHOULD BE FUN!
While all the children’s games of the time you could purchase in the stuffy Victorian shops had names like “Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished” and were means of moral instruction, our author was going to bring the fun back. The Duchess says “I can’t tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.”
THE MAKING OF ALICE IN WONDERLAND
We learn how Dodgson managed to woo the Empire’s foremost political cartoonist, the chief caricaturist of Punch magazine, John Tenniel, and got him to agree to illustrate Alice in Wonderland. Besides a couple of political works from Punch we can see Dodgson’s first few drafts of Alice and the main characters and Tenniel’s initial drawings based on Dodgson’s drafts.
Both men were perfectionists and you can see their notes where every last detail is mapped out, changes are made, tracked, corrected, annotated.
I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.
We can see Quinten Massys’ 1513 painting ‘An Old Woman (The Ugly Duchess)’, which is said to have influenced Tenniel’s first drafts of the character of the Duchess. The painting of a young girl during its first sermon by John Everett Millais had an impact on the illustrations of Alice.
ALICE – THE VICTORIAN FRANCHISE
I had not been aware that Victorians created franchises around their favourite books such as Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Alice was about to set a new standard with merchandise. Only a short while after the book was first published you could buy Alice-themed tea pots, cups, biscuit tins, chess boards, the lot. Dodgson and Tenniel were closely involved in the product design and marketing.
THE IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE
When you exit the first room, this is where the experience becomes more immersive. You walk through fantasy landscapes, rooms, and spaces, look through tiny windows, and so on.
“And the moral of that is—‘Be what you would seem to be’—or, if you’d like it put more simply—‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’”
ALICE THE MOVIE(S)
Various big and small screens show parts of films that have been made over the last 100+ years, including the famous 1903 British silent film ‘Alice in Wonderland’ directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow as well as Disney versions or the Johnny Depp movies.
One highlight is Jan Svankmajer’s Neco z Alenky (Something from Alice) with stop-motion puppetry, in which a taxidermied White Rabbit plays a major role. Another is Dreamchild, directed by Gavin Millar, in which the older ‘real’ Alice is haunted by her memories of Wonderland. It was Jim Henderson’s Creature Workshop that supplied the Dreamchild puppets.
We learn about the enormous pressure Hollywood actresses felt under when playing the heroine of millions of people around the world. The star of the 1933 Paramount production Alice in Wonderland, Charlotte Henry, said: “With that costume, I was transformed in their minds to the creature they had read about as children. My identity was gone.” Her co-stars included Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle and W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty.
I don’t mind surrealist art and I can see the connections now, but it had never occurred to me that those all-time greats like Salvador Dali might have been strongly influenced by little Alice. Dali even illustrated one edition of Alice in Wonderland.
In 1924, the surrealist movement’s founder, Andre Breton, stated that “everyone has the power to accompany an ever more beautiful Alice to Wonderland.” The German surrealist Max Ernst created dozens of works that were influenced by Carroll’s books, including a lovely sculpture called The King Playing with the Queen, which is exhibited here.
“She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it).”
PSYCHEDELIC POSTERS, ROCK MUSIC, HIGH FASHION
Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece is almost unique in that it feels as modern and acute today as it must have more than 150 years ago. Walking from room to room, one gets the distinct impression that the world today would be a very different one if it had not been for that young girl and her wild curiosity and sense of adventure. Exhibits include psychedelic posters, music that referenced the book, plenty of costumes, some of actors who played Alice, some from Paris fashion shows, some from shootings with P Diddy and Naomi Campbell.
ALICE THE VR EXPERIENCE
Everyone’s highlight seems to have been the VR experience. We had to queue for about 20 minutes, which is perfectly fine in my view. Then one of the two museum staff assisted one of the visitors in taking off her VR mask. He cleaned it thoroughly, waved Ellie over, and assisted Ellie in putting the mask on. I had my turn a moment later, when another guest had completed their 4-minute VR journey.
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
I AM AN EXCELLENT HEDGEHOG GRABBER
Presumably I must have been tired, but I clearly hadn’t listened properly to the instructor when he described how to grab objects and how to throw them. I think it was something like you’re supposed to have your hand palm-down and slowly open it to throw an object that’s in your hand. Instead I kept my palm facing upwards, so I failed at throwing anything properly. In my defence, I’m an excellent grabber and squeezed one hedgehog so thoroughly it started giggling uncontrollably.
FALLING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
The tour begins with you falling down the rabbit hole. Then you end up in a room where you can see a glass that has a ‘Drink me.’ sign attached to it. Being a good boy (or girl) you drink the glass and you shrink to about 10 inch body height. There is some hedgehog throwing, a croquet game and the Queen of Hearts tries to murder you. Great fun. You can watch the V&A video here or purchase a more comprehensive online experience for £4 (same link).
“Off with their heads!”
DO WE RECOMMEND THE EXHIBITION?
We absolutely loved everything about this exhibition. It has so obviously been curated by someone with deep affection for Alice and her curiosity (Kate Bailey). 5 out of 5 in our book. The exhibition ends on 31 December 2021.
One caveat: if you’re a high-risk person with regards to Covid, or simply cautious, then this exhibition might not be for you. We didn’t witness anything outrageous, but generally speaking some of the rooms were very crowded by Covid-standards. The air in these windowless, underground vaults feels ok, not unpleasant. That said, most other venues we’ve visited seem to have had much stronger ventilation and the air felt fresher and cooler. Most importantly, we were asked by the wardens to decrease the social distancing from an already meagre 1.2m to 80cm in order to create enough space for the VR queue. It would have been better to stick with 2 metre social distancing and spread the queue over two or three rooms in my view.
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Most of you will already have spotted it: I’ve never read Alice in Wonderland. As a little boy I thought all little girls were stupid. As a bigger boy my interest moved more towards bigger girls. Not that Ms B is big, of course.
NOT JUST A STORY ABOUT A LITTLE GIRL
The book is not just about a little girl, though, I realise that. When you enter the exhibition, the introductory note at the entrance to the first room of the exhibition reads: “[Alice in Wonderland] offers a lens for examining society, and for understanding more about ourselves and our world.” Our heroine makes her fans question society’s standards and “challenge established perceptions of the universe.” The books make their readers feel bold and think or possibly even do the impossible.
ANOTHER TASK FOR THE RESIDENT GEEK
This exhibition made me ask Ellie, our resident geek, to download the book on Kindle. I think I’ll enjoy the read. What role has Alice played in your life so far? What is your favourite thing about Alice? Have you seen the exhibition too? Did you like it as much as I did? Let me know in the comments.
Looking for more fun things to do in and around London? Check out our posts about London Never Dies, an evening at the London Cabaret Club, ‘JR: Chronicles’ at Saatchi Gallery, Frieze London 2021, the immersive Van Gogh Experience in Kensington Gardens, Chihuly in Kew Gardens, our creepy escape room experience in East London, and my attempts at stand-up paddling in Paddington Basin. You might also like our new posts about Papua New Guinea Trivia and River Thames Trivia.