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.
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

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.
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. 

10 Fascinating Facts About The Scarlet Letter

These days, we tend to think about The Scarlet Letter in relation to high school students struggling with their English papers, but we didn’t always see the book that way. When Nathaniel Hawthorne published the novel on March 16, 1850, it was a juicy bestseller about an adulterous woman forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her chest by a community steeped in religious hypocrisy. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the classic tome.


Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts, was aware of his messy Puritan heritage. His great-great-grandfather William Hathorne came to Salem in 1636. As the Massachusetts Bay delegate, he tried to rid the town of Quakers by having them whipped and dragged through the street half naked. His son, John Hathorne, was even worse. As a magistrate during the Salem witch trials of 1692, he examined more than one hundred accused witches, and found them all guilty. Hawthorne detested this legacy and distanced himself from his ancestors by adding the “W” to the spelling of his name.


Unable to support his family by publishing short stories, Hawthorne took a politically appointed post at the Salem Custom House in 1846. Three years later, he was fired because of a political shakeup. The loss of his job, as well as the death of his mother, depressed Hawthorne, but he was also furious at Salem. "I detest this town so much that I hate to go out into the streets, or to have people see me,” he said.

It was in this mood that he started The Scarlet Letter.


In 1846, Hawthorne's sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody published the work of Hungarian linguist Charles Kraitsir. Two years later, it was discovered that Kraitsir’s wife had seduced several of his students at the University of Virginia. He left his wife and daughter in Philadelphia and fled to Peabody for help. Peabody responded by going to Philadelphia in an attempt to gain guardianship of the daughter. This didn’t go over so well with the wife. She followed Peabody back to Boston and confronted her husband. In response, Peabody and Kraitsir tried to get her committed to a lunatic asylum. The press got wind of the story and Kraitsir was skewered for looking weak and hiding behind Peabody’s skirts. Hawthorne watched as the scandal surrounding a woman’s affairs played out on the public stage, right as he was starting The Scarlet Letter.


Hawthorne must have known there was historical precedence for The Scarlet Letter. According to a 1658 law in Plymouth, people caught in adultery were whipped and forced “to weare two Capitall letters namely A D cut out in cloth and sowed on theire vpermost Garments on theire arme or backe.” If they ever took the letters off, they would be publicly whipped again. A similar law was enacted in Salem.

In the town of York (now in Maine) in 1651, near where Hawthorne’s family owned property, a woman named Mary Batchellor was whipped 40 lashes for adultery and forced to wear an ‘A’ on her clothes. She was married to Stephen Batchellor, a minister over 80 years old. Sound familiar?


In an 1871 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, editor James T. Fields wrote about being Hawthorne’s champion. Not only did he try to get Hawthorne reinstated in his Custom House post, Fields said he convinced Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter as a novel. One day, while trying to encourage the despondent writer ("'Who would risk publishing a book for me, the most unpopular writer in America?' 'I would,' said I"), Fields noticed Hawthorne’s bureau. He said he bet Hawthorne had already written something new and that it was in one of the drawers. Hawthorne, flabbergasted, pulled out a manuscript. “How in Heaven's name did you know this thing was there?” he said. He gave Fields the “germ” of The Scarlet Letter. Fields then persuaded Hawthorne to alter “the plan of that story” and write a full-sized book. The rest is history.

Or is it? Hawthorne’s wife Sophia said of Fields’s claims: “He has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She added that Edwin Percy Whipple was the one who encouraged Hawthorne.


Hester Prynne is a tall, dignified character who endures her outcast status with grace and strength. Although she has fallen to a low place as an adulteress with an illegitimate child, she becomes a successful seamstress and raises her daughter even though the authorities want to take the child away. As such, she’s a complex character who embodies what happens when a woman breaks societal rules. Hawthorne not only knew accomplished women such as Peabody and Margaret Fuller, he was writing The Scarlet Letter directly after the first women's rights convention in New York in 1848. He was one of the first American writers to depict “women’s rights, women’s work, women in relation to men, and social change,” according to biographer Brenda Wineapple.


As you probably know, Hawthorne hits you in the head with symbolism throughout The Scarlet Letter, starting with the characters’ names—Pearl for an unwanted child, Roger Chillingworth for a twisted, cold man, Arthur Dimmesdale for a man whose education cannot lead him to truth. From the wild woods to the rosebush by the jail to the embroidered ‘A’ itself, it’s easy to see why The Scarlet Letter is the book that launched a thousand literary essays.


In the 87,000-plus words that make up The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne used “ignominy” 16 times, “ignominious” seven times, and “ignominiously” once. He apparently had affection for the word, which means dishonor, infamy, disgrace, or shame. Either that, or he needed a thesaurus.


While the reviews were generally positive, others condemned The Scarlet Letter as smut. For example, this 1851 review by Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe: “Why has our author selected such a theme? … Is it, in short, because a running underside of filth has become as requisite to a romance, as death in the fifth act to a tragedy? Is the French era actually begun in our literature? … we honestly believe that "the Scarlet Letter" has already done not a little to degrade our literature, and to encourage social licentiousness.” This kind of rhetoric didn’t hurt sales. In fact, The Scarlet Letter’s initial print run of 2500 books sold out in 10 days.


The Scarlet Letter made Hawthorne a well-known writer, allowed him to purchase a home in Concord, and insured an audience for books like The House of Seven Gables. However, The Scarlet Letter didn’t make Hawthorne rich. Despite its success in the U.S. and abroad, royalties weren’t that great—overseas editions paid less than a penny per copy. Hawthorne only made $1500 from the book over the remaining 14 years of his life. He was never able to escape the money troubles that plagued him.

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Pop Culture
Is the True Identity of Voldemort's Pet Snake Hidden in the New Fantastic Beasts Trailer?
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In the Harry Potter series, many of Voldemort's horcruxes were give rich backstories, like Tom Riddle's diary, Marvolo Gaunt's ring, and of course, Harry himself. But the most personal horcrux containing a fragment of Voldemort's soul is also the biggest mystery. Voldemort carries Nagini the snake with him wherever he goes, but we still don't know how the two met or where Nagini came from. Fans may not have to wait much longer to find out: One fan theory laid out by Vanity Fair suggests that Nagini is actually a cursed witch, and her true identity will be revealed in the next Fantastic Beasts movie.

On March 13, the trailer dropped for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second installment in the Harry Potter prequel series written by J.K. Rowling. The clips include lots of goodies for fans—including a first look at Jude Law as young Dumbledore—but one potential bombshell requires closer examination.

Pay attention at the 1:07 mark in the video below and you'll see Claudia Kim, the actress playing a new, unnamed character in the film. While we don't know much about her yet, Pottermore tells us that she is a Maledictus or “someone who suffers from a ‘blood curse’ that turns them into a beast.” This revelation led some fans to suspect the beast she transforms into is Nagini, the snake destined to be Voldemort's companion.

That isn't the only clue backing up the theory. The second piece of evidence comes in the trailer at the 1:17 mark: There, you can see an advertisement for a "wizarding circus," featuring a poster of a woman resembling Kim constricted a by massive snake.

If Kim's character does turn out to be Nagini, the theory still doesn't explain how she eventually joins forces with Voldemort and becomes his horcrux. Fans will have to wait until the film's release on November 16, 2018 for answers. Fortunately, there are plenty of other Harry Potter fan theories to study up on in the meantime.

[h/t Vanity Fair]


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