Available from 1 March at bookstores nationwide.
I have to say I was a little apprehensive when I saw that English author and illustrator Helen Oxenbury had illustrated the most famous work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). Oxenbury is best known for her subtle, gentle family in Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. This is a far cry from that.
Dodgson created bombastic, flamboyant caricatures in Alice in Wonderland that, like those of Gilbert and Sullivan, seem to lampoon real life politicians, public figures and morals of the day. Some have even suggested that Dodgson was on opium when he wrote the story – such were the fantastical creatures he’d created. Oxenbury, by contrast is less interested in the Victorian eccentricities and Ripper Street scandals that’ve found their way into previous publications. And by getting back to the essence of the story, which is now enjoying its 150th anniversary, I think she’s found a more innocent elements – which is more about imagination and less about vicarious political interpretations.
Alice was originally published in 1865, three years after Dodgson and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth took a boat ride up the river Isis with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell (the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church). During the trip the Dodgson told the girls a story featuring a bored little girl, Alice, who goes looking for an adventure. The girls loved it, and one of the girls, Alice Liddell, asked Dodgson to write it down for her, so he began on a manuscript the very next day. Originally he added his own illustrations but later approached political cartoonist and illustrator John Tenniel to prepare illustrations for the first publication of the book, which explains the direction of such iconic images such as the thinly veiled Victoria and the Queen of Hearts and Gladstone as the White Rabbit (although many other real personas have been overlaid on this particular character).
Even today, the book can’t be rivalled. It’s a nutty tale of a little girl who follows a white rabbit down a bolthole and discovers a crazy world of mad hatters, tea parties, invisible cats, croquet lawns, and a court case to recover stolen pastries. Quite, Quite Mad!
When Oxenbury agreed to produce images for this edition, the publisher did not tamper with the original language of Dodgson’s manuscript. Perhaps the lessons were learned with the updating of Enid Blyton’s works (particularly The Famous Five series) which clearly lose all of their innocent period charm and placement when the language is modernised, made politically correct and ultimately dumbed down. For the younger reader of today, discovering the poetry and lyricism in the work is part of the magic, though old and young readers still cannot help being dragged down the tunnel. Nor could those thoroughly Victorian elements like a pocket watch, a mock turtle (the soup and the creature) and the legendary Dodo bird be discarded in favor of modern equivalents, should any be found.
Like the works of Edward Lear, Alice is a flight of fancy, but there’s no reason why this classic work could not stand up against Captain Underpants or the Cat In The Hat, for that matter. All invoke elements of ridiculousness and wild imagination. This type of work is a luxury today in this prescriptive world of Kiddy Channels and do-it-for-you tablet Apps that compete for the young minds and eyeballs.The pictures provide just enough interaction to bridge the gaps between the original ideas and the understandings of today. At no point does she try to portray anything that cannot translate into 2015. Oxenbury’s art is a way to keep this wonderful book relevant, and for the most part, that works a treat.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (150th anniversary edition)
by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Published by Walker Books