Alice's Adventures Online - British Library Digitises Lewis Carroll

By Caroline Lewis | 20 September 2005
Shows a scanned page from the manuscript, headed Chapter 11 and featuring a pen illustration of Alice with her head on her hand, listening to a bird.

The manuscript took a considerable length of time to complete, but the detail goes to show it was worth it. Courtesy the British Library.

The British Library website is putting online the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, as part of its Turning the Pages section.

The story, by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pen name Lewis Carroll, is the forerunner to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – one of the most popular children’s books ever written.

Now the original pages, handwritten for young Alice Liddell in the 1860s, will be virtually flich through-able on the Internet. The online version will contain 90 pages and 37 illustrations as put together by the Oxford don as a gift to Alice, daughter of the Dean of Dodgson’s college, Christ Church.

“With manuscripts like this,” said Chris Fletcher of the BL’s Manuscript Department, “we display them but it’s difficult for the public to see all parts of them. Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is so graphically interesting and attractive it was felt that it would be an ideal candidate for Turning the Pages, so the public would be able to engage with it as closely as possible. It’s just tremendously popular.”

Shows a screen grab of the last two manuscript pages as they appear on Turning the Pages, with buttons at the bottom allowing users to navigate the book.

Turning the Pages allows users to go through each page of the book virtually. Courtesy the British Library.

One summer’s day in 1862, Dodgson took 10-year-old Alice and her sisters Lorina and Edith on a boat trip. He entertained them with a story of Alice’s adventures in a magical world entered via a rabbit hole – which the girls wholeheartedly enjoyed.

Alice adored it so much she implored him to write it down for her, which he did, completing the book in neat manuscript print by February 1863. He then added illustrations and finally presented the work to her in November 1864, inscribed: ‘A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child, in Memory of a Summer Day.’

“The whole story surrounding its creation has such evocative associations with a particular place and time,” explained Chris. “The whole story of its inspiration and evolution from a personal gift to a literary phenomenon is fascinating.”

Its inclusion in Turning the Pages, which features digitisations of such historically important texts as The Diamond Sutra, The Lindisfarne Gospels and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebook, is testimony to the influence of the manuscript, Chris believes: “It’s very much a national treasure.”

Shows a scan of a manuscript page with the Queen of Hearts character speaking to Alice.

Alice's Adventures is one of the most cited children's books in the English language. Courtesy the British Library.

Encouraged by friends and family, Dodgson reworked and lengthened the story for publication. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, with John Tenniel commissioned to illustrate it, using the author’s original sketches as a basis.

While the book went from success to success, Alice Liddell had less luck and was forced to sell her manuscript in 1928.

“It’s sad,” said Chris, “she was clobbered with death duties. She was widowed and so she sold it at auction. It went for an unprecedented amount, which shows how outstanding it was considered.”

The manuscript was sold at Sotheby’s for £15,000 on April 3, 1928 to an American dealer called Dr Rosenbach, who also collected James Joyce and Conrad. “It was a real prize,” commented Chris.

It was bought again for $50,000 (roughly £30,000) in 1946, by a group of American benefactors who wished to present it to the British Library as a gesture of thanks for Britain’s role in the Second World War. “It would have reached a much higher sum,” explained Chris, “but it was known that the intention was to give it back.”

Shows a screen grab of the magnifying glass tool on Turning the Pages, with Alice talking to a rabbit.

Users can pass a virtual magnifying glass over the pages. Courtesy the British Library.

The manuscript itself is a beautiful thing to behold, especially considering the time and effort Charles Lutwidge Dogson put into it.

“It’s incredibly neat,” said Chris. “He did it rather in the manner of the Brontë sisters – he wanted it to look like a printed book, not like his normal handwriting. It’s a fine calligraphic hand, very legible, with virtually no mistakes at all.”

“It was the illustrations that really cost him in toil and anxiety,” he went on. “Of course, after you’ve spent that long on something, you don’t want to botch the illustrations! They are very intimate, very beautiful and striking.”

Parallels could be drawn between Dodgson’s work and the task of digitization.“It’s an extremely technical and labour-intensive process,” said Chris, “the idea being to emulate as accurately as possible the whole business of what it is like to ‘turn the pages’. The technology is cutting edge, the photography to a very high standard. It’s wonderful to have such a high quality record.”

Shows a drawing of a young girl with short dark hair.

Dodgson's only illustration of Alice Liddell. Courtesy the British Library.

Carroll – an inventor and mathematician – would have approved, thinks Chris: “I think he would have been pleased with this. He would have been impressed with the technology.”

“We’re delighted to have done it – to share this with people in the this way. It continues an interesting story.”

One mystery remains… At the end of the text is a photograph of Alice Liddell, with short hair and a keen expression, not at all like the blonde girl in a blue dress readers are usually confronted with. Hidden underneath is Dodgson’s only drawing of her, as she actually looked – he seems to have deliberately concealed it.

No-one can know for sure why he did this, though it’s assumed he was dissatisfied with his portrait. Visitors to Turning the Pages, however, will be able to lift the photo and discover the picture for themselves.

Alice's Adventures Under Ground Turning The Pages is live from September 21 2005.

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