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The White Aerial put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, amuse your Majesty?” he asked.

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“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, actual gravely, “and go on till you arise to the end: then stop.”

Ask a asinine catechism and you’ll tend to get a asinine acknowledgment — decidedly in Wonderland. But that doesn’t absolutely explain why this barter from the balloon of the Knave of Hearts makes us smile.

Perhaps the delight, as with so abundant abroad in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, comes from the bond up of categories. Some things do artlessly activate area they activate and end area they end; others crave these ambit to be imposed, and often with difficulty.

In cogent the adventure abaft Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the starting point at atomic is not in doubt: that “golden afternoon” of July 4 1862, back on a baiter cruise from Oxford up the river Thames to the apple of Godstow, a abashed Christ Church mathematician called Charles Lutwidge Dodgson entertained three of the academy dean’s daughters with a absurd yarn.

There had been agnate trips before, with agnate tales that were anon forgotten, but on this break the average sister, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, insisted that Dodgson address it all down.

And so assignment began on a arrangement that would be presented to Alice as an aboriginal Christmas present in November 1864; a year afterwards came an broadcast adaptation in book form, arise by Macmillan beneath the pseudonym Lewis Carroll and with illustrations by the abundant Punch artisan John Tenniel.

Where to end is a trickier proposition. By the time of Carroll’s afterlife at 65 in 1898, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Begin There, were defended in their abode amid the century’s best accepted children’s books, with endless imitators and a alongside activity on the London stage.

By the aboriginal 1930s, back the aged Alice Liddell accustomed in America to accept an honorary amount appearance the centenary of Carroll’s birth, the books had aggressive suffragettes, aesthetic manifestos and bashful films, and were authoritative their bound into the talkies.

Today, absurd as generally in the ablaze colours of Disney as in the cross-hatching of Tenniel, they are frequently said to be the best quoted texts afterwards the Bible and Shakespeare, bushing the concordance with words such as “frabjous” and “galumphing” and translated into added than 170 languages.

Parodies and tributes abound: Alice in Blunderland, Alice in Plunderland, alike Alice in Sunderland. The story, in added words, is still activity on.

So why accept these books exerted such a fascination, and for so long? That is the catechism at the affection of a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, originally appointed to accessible in June but now delayed by the coronavirus crisis.

It charge be daunting, I advance to babysitter Kate Bailey — the following of not one white aerial but rather a accomplished colony, anniversary scurrying off in its own direction. “There are abounding altered answers,” she says. “Wonderland is an allurement to the imagination, it takes us into every aspect of life.”

You could altercate that Carroll was aloof avant-garde of his time. Alice was an abnormal advocate — a girl, for a start, in a aeon back abounding girls did not go to school, and one who is far from the meek, seen-and-not-heard Victorian arrangement as she makes her affable but active way through developed worlds that accept been cut bottomward to the admeasurement of a backpack of cards or a bold of chess.

“She speaks accuracy to power,” says Bailey. “It’s not like she needs a bogie godmother — Alice has bureau and ultimately chooses her aisle and takes control.”

This was an age that, like the Wonderland Duchess, had little agitation award the moral in a adventure — nurseries were abounding of works such as Mary Martha Sherwood’s accustomed The History of the Fairchild Family; or, The Child’s Manual (which alien the dangling charcoal of a bent on a asphyxiate in adjustment to instil the boyish with a able faculty of their own “human depravity”).

It is difficult today to acknowledge aloof how adorable Carroll’s mid-Victorian readers would accept begin his parodies of the convalescent abstract inflicted on them. But with the advice of annotated editions such as those aggregate by Martin Gardner, you can get afterpiece to episodes like Alice’s misremembering of Isaac Watts’s “Against Idleness and Mischief”, which transforms the 18th-century address of the “little active bee” into an ode to a crocodile; or “You Are Old, Father William”, in which Robert Southey’s bookish composition adulatory the virtues of abnegation and balance becomes a anarchism of aged acrobatics and eel-balancing.

At a added basal level, and as abundant today as ever, Alice seems to cut to the quick of childhood. Her connected growing and shrinking allege to some of its amount adventures and traumas.

Similarly, the comedy in exact misunderstandings as the articulate rubs adjoin the written, and linguistic rules are activated and begin wanting, bell with those for whom the acquaintance of accepting accent is best fresh.

As the Cambridge bookish Gillian Beer puts it in her accomplished Alice in Space (2016): “Children are an admirers accomplished and acid by the attempt with accent and still alienated adjoin its constraints. Carroll enters this chargeless zone.”

Then there are the analytic amateur of a bookish absorbed in all the latest debates on Darwinism and non-Euclidean geometry, areas in which Carroll was able to analyze account that the added intellectually alert Dodgson shied abroad from. Today it is the adapt ego’s access that you see in science, from guides to physics such as Robert Gilmore’s Alice in Quantumland to the ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) activity at Cern abreast Geneva.

If Charles Dodgson addled aeon as an absurd antecedent for this affectionate of mischief, his aboriginal activity was in abounding means a training for it. Born in 1832, the earlier son of a Cheshire clergyman, he was the third of 11 ancestors and affected his role as amateur from a boyish age, bearing ancestors magazines in which he emulated the illustrated satires of Punch.

Some of this would afterwards be plundered for actual in the Alice books — conspicuously the aperture arrangement of pseudo-Anglo Saxon nonsense composition “Jabberwocky”, which both mocked and captivated the philologists alongside whom he afterwards formed in Oxford.

Educated at home until an black spell at Rugby School, he took up apartment at Christ Church in 1851, accomplishing the accomplished aboriginal in his year and acceptable the college’s algebraic lectureship in 1855.

He became a affect but never avant-garde to the priesthood — a accommodation that was adjoin the rules for those in his position but to which the authorities absitively to about-face a dark eye. Outside his bookish career, he had a agog absorption in theatre and was an aboriginal adopter of photography, a following that became his calling agenda in London Pre-Raphaelite circles.

Alice has bureau and ultimately chooses her aisle and takes control

Photography was additionally axial to Carroll’s accord with Alice Liddell and added “child-friends”, and the antecedent of abundant of the ailment that has amidst him since. Accouchement affection in a little added than bisected of his actual portraits, occasionally in nude or semi-clothed poses. To avant-garde eyes, some of the images do assume acutely questionable.

But defenders accept absolved as anachronistic the abstraction that they could accept been annihilation added than a anniversary of innocence, in befitting with a time that admired and romanticised childhood.

In the case of the Liddells, there is affirmation of a falling out with Carroll in 1863, admitting affable relations were afterwards resumed. Certain ellipses — belletrist destroyed by Alice’s mother, missing volumes from his account and pages removed by an alien ancestors affiliate — accept accumulated to agitation afterwards biographers, three of whom appropriate in the 1990s that he had paedophilic urges that he never acted on.

More recently, Edward Wakeling, columnist of the 2015 Lewis Carroll: The Man and his Circle, has presented him as a man wronged by posterity, cartoon out a affluent developed amusing activity to actual the abstraction that he was alone absolutely adequate with children.

The Adventure of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, arise in the aforementioned year, sets out both abandon of the agitation judiciously, acceptance for the achievability that Carroll did not absolutely accept himself afore autograph that “the best apparent cessation is that Carroll’s arch animosity were affected rather than sexual”.

Should we apprehend the V&A’s exhibition to analyze this difficult territory? It is adamantine to see how it could accord abundantly with biographical questions that beefy books accept tended to leave unresolved, and that seems doubly accurate accustomed that Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is to be aimed at accouchement as able-bodied as adults.

Bailey stresses that this is primarily a appearance about the assignment rather than the life, and along one with a focus on how the Alice books accept been accustomed and interpreted in the aeon and a bisected back their publication.

When the exhibition opens and the aboriginal beachcomber of socially distanced visitors assuredly filters into the V&A, few will apprehend a simple take-home bulletin about Lewis Carroll. For if the exhibits that the building has accumulated authorize annihilation about the Alice books, it is that they now accept a complication of meanings.

Still, if there is a cilia to be fatigued out, it is acceptable to alpha with Carroll’s absorption in dreams and added alongside realms of experience. This was the ancillary of him that aggressive the Surrealists, starting with André Breton’s 1924 acclamation for the movement and continuing through Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington and Salvador Dalí.

We see it too in the consciousness-expanding cartoon of artists such as Joseph McHugh arise by East Totem West, or Yayoi Kusama’s 1968 naked “happening” at the Alice in Wonderland bronze in New York’s Axial Park.

More surprising, back you accede Carroll’s own conservative, aerial Anglican leanings (“Wild agitator! Means well”, was his anagrammatic acumen on the Liberal baby-kisser William Ewart Gladstone), is aloof how abundant Carroll has aggressive political radicals.

It started in ardent with the suffragette comedy Alice in Ganderland (1911), which drew on what was by again a absolute attitude of Carroll-inspired satire, and you can apprehend a aside answer of this in the feminist bulletin of Tim Burton’s visually spectacular, narratively age-old and commercially boastful Alice blur from 2010.

The Unity Theatre’s Alice in Thunderland saw the appearance swept up in the affection of 1945, experiencing soup kitchens and apartment schemes as she learns the amount of barter abutment membership, while an anti-establishment appraisal is acutely on appearance in Ralph Steadman’s 1967 lithographs, with Tweedledum and Tweedledee casting as burghal and country gents and John Lennon in the role of the caterpillar. (Lennon, for his part, admired Carroll and accustomed the access of Alice on both “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus”.)

Other late-20th-century interpretations are harder to read. Peter Blake, the pop artisan who put Carroll on the awning of the Sgt Pepper anthology and afterwards aloof to the countryside as a architect of the Ruralists, a accumulation adherent to accuracy in art, contributes a 1970 eyes of Alice chargeless of satire, pastoral and truculently English, alongside a sensitive, accessible Mad Hatter for the age of RD Laing. Or, from the 1990s, there are the accurate tableaux of American artisan Anna Gaskell, whose “wonder” and “override” alternation staged adverse rituals in forests and fields allowable by boyish blue-and-yellow-clad girls.

Finally, bringing the appearance about up to date, accede Rae Smith’s sets and Katrina Lindsay’s apparel for the National Theatre’s 2015 wonder.land, a agreeable that reimagined Alice as an avatar and Wonderland as the internet, with all its distractions, dangers and possibilities.

And this is area we arise abounding circle, because it was Carroll himself who supplied the allegory for this. What started on the bank all those years ago ends, inevitably, bottomward a aerial hole.

Lorien Kite is agent editor of FT Activity & Arts.

“Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser” will arise at the Victoria and Albert Museum, vam.ac.uk

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to acquisition out about our latest belief first. Accept to our podcast, Culture Call, area FT editors and appropriate guests altercate activity and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

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