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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.
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. 

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7 Lost and Rediscovered Literary Works by Famous Authors
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A number of literary works by famous authors that were once thought lost have recently been rediscovered. Some were found in private collections, others within vast archives, and one was even uncovered in an attic. A few of these works have delighted readers and scholars alike, while others may have gone unpublished for a reason—yet all offer fresh insight into the development of the writers who wrote them.

1. “TEMPERATURE” // F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

In July 2015 Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand magazine, was searching through the rare book archive at Princeton University when he uncovered a previously unpublished short story by Princeton alum F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gulli makes something of a habit of searching for lost and unpublished works by famous authors, and in the past has uncovered a story by John Steinbeck, which was also published for the first time in The Strand. Fitzgerald's 8000-word short story, entitled “Temperature” and written in 1939, features a hard-drinking writer with a heart problem. In a sad echo of real life, just a year after he wrote it Fitzgerald himself died of a heart attack.

2. WHAT PET SHALL I GET? // DR. SEUSS

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) seated at a desk covered with his books
Library of Congress, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 2013, the widow of Ted Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) rediscovered a pile of manuscripts and sketches that she had set aside shortly after her husband's death in 1991. The papers contained the words and illustrations for What Pet Shall I Get?, which was published by Random House in July 2015. It is thought the book was likely written between 1958 and 1962, since it features the same brother-and-sister characters found in Seuss’s 1960 bestseller One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

3. “SHERLOCK HOLMES: DISCOVERING THE BORDER BURGHS AND, BY DEDUCTION, THE BRIG BAZAAR” // ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sitting at a table in his garden, Bignell Wood, New Forest, 1927
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Sherlock Holmes short story supposedly written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was uncovered in the attic of historian Walter Elliot in 2015. The strange little story was written by Conan Doyle to be included in a collection of stories entitled The Book o' the Brig, which aimed to raise funds to rebuild a bridge across Ettrick Water, near Selkirk in Scotland, which had been destroyed during floods in 1902.

No sooner had the story been rediscovered, however, than some were expressing doubts about whether it had been written by Conan Doyle himself, especially since the flowery language doesn't seem in keeping with the renowned author's pared-down style. The full text of the story can be read (and puzzled over) here.

4. "THE FIELD OF HONOR" // EDITH WHARTON

Photo of author Edith Wharton, wearing hat with a feather, coat with fur trim, and a fur muff
Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Alice Kelly, a researcher from Oxford University, was studying Edith Wharton’s papers in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in November 2015 when she discovered a previously unpublished short story. The unfinished nine-page story was stuck to the back of another manuscript, and is entitled "The Field of Honor." It centers on the First World War and is critical of the women who only superficially helped with the war effort, perhaps explaining why it was not published at such a sensitive time.

5. "POETICAL ESSAY ON THE EXISTING STATE OF THINGS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

Crayon drawing of poet Percy Shelley circa 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Percy Bysshe Shelley was in his first year of university at Oxford in 1810/11, he wrote and published a poem critical of the Napoleonic wars under the pseudonym “a gentlemen of the University of Oxford.” The 172-line poem was printed in a 20-page pamphlet entitled “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” and was not attributed to Shelley until 50 years after his death. All copies were thought lost until 2006, when one was found amidst a mysterious private collection and offered for auction. Only scholars had access to the poem until 2015, when it was purchased by the Bodleian Library in Oxford to add to their world-famous collection of Shelley works and papers. The poem became the library’s 12 millionth book to be acquired and is now available online for all to read.

6. EARLY STORIES // TRUMAN CAPOTE

A black-and-white photo of a smiling Truman Capote
Evening Standard/Getty Images

A Swiss publisher poring over Truman Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library several years ago rediscovered a variety of short stories and poems the author had written before the age of 20. While four of the stories had been published in Capote’s school literary magazine, The Green Witch, the majority of the pile was brand-new to the reading public. In October 2015, Penguin books released the stories as The Early Stories of Truman Capote.

7. THE TURNIP PRINCESS

While looking through the archives of the city of Regensberg, Germany, researcher Erika Eichenseer uncovered 30 boxes containing more than 500 German fairy tales, which had lain unnoticed for 150 years. The stories had been collected by historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, who traveled around the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz recording folktales, myths, and legends in order to preserve them. He published the results of his research in three volumes between 1857 and 1859, but his matter-of-fact accounts of the stories were somewhat overshadowed by the more artful stories of his contemporaries the Brothers Grimm, and his book fell into obscurity. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales contains 72 of the lost tales and was published by Penguin in February 2015.

A previous version of this story ran in 2015.

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History
The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

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