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Go ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ at the Rosenbach

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STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON 
For Digital First Media

Are you curiouser and curiouser about “Alice in Wonderland”? The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia is celebrating the classic story’s 150th anniversary with an exhibit and related programs. Go “Down the Rabbit Hole” through May 15. Wonderland comes to the heart of Philadelphia and actually the story has ties to the city. That’s one of the fun things about the exhibit – learning the story behind the story.
The exhibit features three parts. The first is called “Wonderland Rules,” and it looks at author Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, as “an out-of-the-box thinker” and explores “Alice’s profound cultural legacy and the continuing impact of Carroll’s famous work,” says the press materials.
The second part is “Alice in Phillyland.” That’s where people can learn more about how Alice and Philadelphia are connected, including the purchase of the manuscript at auction by Philadelphia book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach for a world-record price.
Curator and Director of Collections Judy Guston said in a telephone interview that Rosenbach bought the manuscript from Sotheby’s London in 1928. It was put up for auction by the original Alice – Alice Pleasance Liddell, the daughter of a dean that Carroll worked and was friends with at the University of Oxford in England. Carroll had told Liddell the story; she asked him to write it down. That became the classic story known around the world.

The Mad Tea Party, Tenniel colored illustration from first edition of The Nursery Alice, published 1890. Submitted photo

The Mad Tea Party, Tenniel colored illustration from first edition of The Nursery Alice, published 1890.
Submitted photo

Rosenbach paid about 15,000 pounds for the manuscript, about $75,000 US at the time. In today’s money, it would be about a million dollars.
Later, Carroll sold the manuscript to Eldridge Johnson, who invented the Victrola. Johnson and Rosenbach displayed the manuscript at the Free Library of Philadelphia and other venues in the Northeast U.S., Guston said.
When Johnson’s heirs put it up for auction, Rosenbach bought it again. After World War II, he gave the manuscript to the British (it actually went from Philadelphia to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and then to England). It has been in the British Library ever since.
The exhibit details the full history, but it’s also just a fun experience for those who love the book, like Guston does.
“It brought back memories, one of my earliest, of seeing it on stage at about two and a half,” she said. “I think a lot of people share that – it’s one of the first books they read or first they read to their kids or they’ve seen some version in the theater.”
Associate Curator Kathy Haas, who curated the third part of the exhibit called “Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk? Lewis Carroll’s Riddles, Puzzles and Games,” has similar feelings.
“I’ve always enjoyed his work,” she said in a telephone interview. “‘Alice in Wonderland’ is the first chapter book I read in kindergarten. Mom was reading it to me one night and I woke up the next day and read it. I wanted to know what happened.”

Alice with Bottle, Tenniel colored illustration from first edition of The Nursery Alice, published 1890. Courtesy photo

Alice with Bottle, Tenniel colored illustration from first edition of The Nursery Alice, published 1890.
Courtesy photo

The affection for his work continued when her eighth grade math teacher used Carroll’s logic and other puzzles in class. Turns out the author, who was also a mathematician, liked to create mind-bending games. One of the games he invented was called Doublets or word ladders.
“You take a word like ‘eye” and you have to transform it to ‘lid’ by changing one letter at a time,” she said. “And the intermediate words have to be real words.”
Carroll also created a version of billiards, which is usually played on a rectangular table, on a circular one. The Rosenbach exhibit features a replica that people can play with.
Some of his games reflect more directly on “Alice.” Carroll created games around chess boards and croquet. The exhibit offers an interactive digital app for two players based on his croquet game.
The goal of Haas’ part of the exhibit is to explore Alice’s world and the world of the book through the lens of puzzles and games. It’s just a fun way to enjoy books that already so many people love, including her.
“The same spirit of fun and games is what makes the books interesting. They’re clever,” Haas said. “Carroll created a complex and fascinating world.”
A variety of events are also planned including tea parties, book discussions and more. For example, a Literary Costume Party is planned for Saturday, Oct. 31 and a Down the Rabbit Hole Family Day is planned for Saturday, March 12. For a complete list of events and more information, check www.rosenbach.org.

IF YOU GO

What: “Down the Rabbit Hole: Celebrating 150 Years of Alice in Wonderland”
When: Tuesday through Sunday, now through May 15, 2016 (check site or call for hours).
Where: Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia.
Admission: $10; $8 seniors ages 65 & older; $5 students & children; younger than 5 free.
Info.: Call (215) 732-1600 or visit www.rosenbach.org

Photograph of the three Liddell Sisters, taken by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Alice is pictures on the right. Courtesy photo

Photograph of the three Liddell Sisters, taken by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Alice is pictures on the right.
Courtesy photo

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