Everyone knows about Alice’s travels down the rabbit hole, in Wonderland and through the looking glass, but most people are unaware that her adventures also brought her to Philadelphia. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the Rosenbach is telling that story in a new exhibition.
The size-shifting, ever-curiouser Alice had a real-life counterpart in Alice Liddell, a young girl whose family befriended the English writer and mathematician Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. Dodgson invented the fantastical Wonderland during a rowboat excursion with Alice and her two sisters one afternoon in 1862. Two years later he presented a handwritten, illustrated manuscript of the story — then called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” — to Alice Liddell as a Christmas present.
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It’s that manuscript that carries Alice’s story from England to Philly. In 1928, having fallen on hard times financially, Alice Liddell Hargreaves sold that original manuscript at auction in London, where it was purchased by Philadelphia book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach — the literary museum’s founder and namesake. “This caused a great international stir at the time,” says Alice Emerson, the Rosenbach’s manager of external relations. “It made huge headlines, number one because of an American swooping in and buying this British treasure right out from under the nose of the British people. The second reason is that he paid a world record price for a manuscript.”
Dr. Rosenbach brought the manuscript home and eventually sold it to collector Eldridge Johnson, who was convinced to place it on display at the Free Library. The elderly Alice herself came to see the manuscript in its new home; the chair where she sat will be among the artifacts in the Rosenbach’s exhibition. Following Johnson’s death, Rosenbach and a consortium of local philanthropists bought the book back, donating it to the British Library as a goodwill gesture in the aftermath of World War II.
From Oct. 14 to 18, the manuscript will once again be on view in Philadelphia before heading home to Britain. The Rosenbach will also feature a three-part exhibition through May 2016 exploring its own extensive Lewis Carroll collection, exploring the story’s legacy, its Philadelphia connection, and Carroll’s love of puzzles and wordplay.
Emerson calls the exhibition “a chance to connect with something that’s so familiar in popular culture that you don’t even think about it," she says.
"Everyone knows this story, but the stories behind the story are the fascinating aspects that we’re trying to pull out," Emerson continues. "Seeing these original materials really gives you a whole new depth and appreciation for what this cultural icon is and how it came to be.”
If you go
The three-part "Down the Rabbit Hole" exhibition is at The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia (2008-2010 Delancey Place) from Oct. 14 to March 27. The original manuscript will be displayed from Oct. 14 to 18.