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John Tenniel (1820–1914), “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” (The Mad Tea Party), 1885, Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.

12 Absurd Facts About Alice in Wonderland

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John Tenniel (1820–1914), “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” (The Mad Tea Party), 1885, Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.

When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland came out in 1865, it was a blockbuster success. The book is widely credited with changing the landscape of children’s literature, adding nonsensical fun to what had been a genre obsessed with moralizing. This year, the literary cornerstone turns 150 years old. Here are a few facts you might not know about Alice and its author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll): 

1. The real Alice was the daughter of Carroll’s boss. 

The real Alice, who lent her name to the story, was the daughter of Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford, where Carroll taught mathematics. “Everyone who was employed by the school lived on campus,” says Carolyn Vega, the assistant curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan Library, which is currently running an exhibition on Alice. “Carroll met the dean and Alice’s older brother first, and that’s how he came to know the entire family.”

Alice Liddell in wreath as “Queen of May,” 1860. Image Credit: Albumen print, Photograph by Lewis Carroll (1832–1898). Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

2. The Mad Hatter never would have existed without the persistence of children.

When Carroll began telling a fantastic tale to Alice Liddell and her two sisters on a summer 1862 boating trip up the Thames, he didn’t plan on becoming a children’s author. But just like your niece who won’t stop begging to watch Frozen again, the kids wouldn’t stop asking him to tell the story—Carroll wrote about having to retell “the interminable Alice’s adventures” in his diary. He eventually turned it into a written novel, presenting it to Alice as an early Christmas gift in 1864. By the time he self-published the final version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, it had doubled in length, with new scenes including those with the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. “These episodes are likely something that came up later in the retelling of the story,” Vega says.

3. The original illustrator hated the first edition. 

Carroll commissioned prominent English illustrator John Tenniel to create the accompanying art for the story. When he saw an early copy of the book, Tenniel was so dismayed at how badly his drawings had been reproduced, Carroll scrapped the entire edition, spending more than half his annual salary to get it reprinted and leaving him in a financial hole before the book even came out. Luckily, once widely published, Alice enjoyed instant success. The books from the subpar printing were later sold in America.

4. It was first made into a movie in 1903. 

Only a handful of years after Carroll died, directors Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stowe made the story into a 12-minute film. At the turn of the century, that made it the longest film produced in Britain. Hepworth himself played the Frog Footman, while his wife was cast as the White Rabbit and the Queen. 

5. Carroll almost called it “Alice’s Hour in Elfland.”

Writing in his diary of the afternoon boating trip that inspired Carroll to come up with a story for young Alice Liddell, he tried out a few different titles for his novel. The original tale presented to the 10-year-old Liddell was called “Alice’s Adventures Underground,” but upon publication, Carroll decided he might call it Alice’s Hour in Elfland. Another rejected idea: Alice Among the Fairies. Eventually, he went with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland instead. Probably for the best.

6. It satirizes newfangled theories about math. 

Scholars have theorized that Carroll’s day job made its way into the book in the form of satire about 19th century innovations in mathematics, like imaginary numbers. For instance, the riddles like the one the Mad Hatter asks Alice about a raven being like a writing desk, “were a reflection on the increasing abstraction that was going on in mathematics in the 19th century,” as mathematician Keith Devlin told NPR in 2010. Carroll was a very conservative mathematician, and he found new forms of math emerging in the mid-1800s absurd compared to the algebra and Euclidian geometry he favored. 

 “Nothing but a pack of cards!" 1885. Image Credit: John Tenniel (1820–1914), Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014


7. The original illustrations were carved into wood.

Tenniel was a renowned illustrator by the time he took on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, known for his political cartoons. His drawings were first made on paper, then carved on woodblocks by engravers, which were then made into metal electrotype reproductions to be used in the printing process.

Carte de visite photograph of Lewis Carroll with lens, 1863. Image Credit:Photograph by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

8. Wonderland wouldn’t have seemed so absurd to the real Alice. 

“Some of the things that seem like nonsense to us would have made total sense to Alice and her sisters,” Vega explains. When the Mock Turtle says in the book that he receives lessons in drawing, sketching, and “fainting in coils” from an “old conger-eel, that used to come once a week,” the Liddells would have recognized their own art tutor, who gave the girls lessons in sketching, drawing, and oil painting. Much of the “nonsense” from the book was “based on people and places and experiences that these very real children had and would have been familiar with,” Vega says. 

9. The Dodo is based on Carroll. 

In the book, Carroll alludes to the 1862 boating trip that inspired the story by putting those present (Alice, her sisters, and Carroll's colleague) in the story as birds. Carroll was the Dodo, named after his real name, Charles Dodgson. As one story goes, the author had a tendency to stammer, introducing himself as “Do-do-dogson.” His sometimes debilitating stutter prevented him from becoming a priest, leading him to mathematics and writing instead. 

A page from the original manuscript given to Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll.Image Credit: Lewis Carroll (1832–1898), Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, completed 13 September 1864, Illustrated manuscript. © The British Library Board.

10. The original manuscript almost never leaves London. 

For its latest exhibition, New York City’s Morgan Library managed to get ahold of Carroll’s original manuscript of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”—the hand-written and illustrated version he gave to Alice Liddell. The book belongs to the British Library, and it rarely gets a vacation abroad. When it does, it’s a big deal, as The New York Times explains

[I]t is accompanied by security measures whose details are cloaked in obfuscation befitting Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Jamie Andrews, the head of cultural engagement for the British Library, said that it was not checked on the flight over (‘We don’t freight things like that’), but he would not say exactly where it was on the plane or who exactly was with it

It did cause a minor stir at the airport. "I showed the customs form to the customs guy at J. F. K.," Mr. Andrews said. The man looked at the declared value of the manuscript, a number Mr. Andrews would not divulge. "And he said, 'Jeez, son, what have you got in there, the crown jewels?' And in a sense it is our crown jewels."

“Off with herhead!” 1885. Image Credit: John Tenniel (1820–1914), Hand-colored proof. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr.,The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Steven H. Crossot, 2014.

11. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was a pioneer of brand licensing. 

Carroll was a savvy marketer of his story and characters. That’s perhaps the main reason the story is so well known today, even for those who haven’t actually read the book. “He’s one of the first authors working with manufacturers to bring out related products,” Vega says. He was all about the tie-ins. He designed a postage stamp case decorated with images of Alice and allowed her image to adorn cookie tins and other products. For readers eager to learn more about the origins of the book, he produced a facsimile of the original manuscript, a rare move for an author of his day. Later, he created a shorter version of the book for even younger readers. His 19th century business savvy foretold franchise-obsessed companies like Disney decades before their founding. 

12. The book has never been out of print. 

It has been translated into 176 languages. Its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, sold out within seven weeks of its publication. 

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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
iStock

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
iStock

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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