Thursday 7 March 2019

Volunteers in Wonderland!

It’s the time of year for thinking about books: World Book Night in April is a great reason to re-read a classic, and in March children everywhere dress up to celebrate World Book Day.  Some of the most popular costume choices are characters from Alice in Wonderland, from the Queen of Hearts to the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat or Alice herself. 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to give the book its full title, was first published in 1865 and has never been out of print since.  Its author Lewis Carroll – a pen name – was from Cheshire and lived here until the age of eleven.  He was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1832 in Daresbury, where his father was the local parson. 
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1902; Baptism register entry for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson; author portrait

Given this local connection, Cheshire Archives and Local Studies are fortunate to have a large Lewis Carroll collection which is about to be made available to the public at our search room in Chester.  This is thanks in part to a children’s literature enthusiast who generously donated close to four hundred books to us in 2017, but it is also thanks to the commitment of two volunteers that the collection will soon be accessible.

Volunteers play an important role at Cheshire Record Office, from assisting with conservation work to helping us make our records accessible online, and working with staff to sort through the many new deposits we receive each year.  Along with long-standing volunteer John Dixon, who sadly passed away earlier this year, our volunteer Marilyn Ainsworth has spent many hours on the Lewis Carroll project.  We asked Marilyn to explain how she became involved and tell us about the collection. 

Marilyn spent six years as an Archives Assistant at Cheshire Record Office before retiring in 2014, but knew she would eventually like to spend some time volunteering.  Given her interest in visual projects, our Local Studies department – with its donations of drawings, paintings, photographs, news flyers and books – was ideal and she started with the Lewis Carroll project in 2017.  The first task was to look through each of the 396 items that had been deposited with us, sorting them into categories and making notes such as the names of the publisher and illustrator, the publication date and a brief description of the content.  We have Alice books ranging from the nineteenth century to the present day and editions in over twenty languages, so Marilyn had to do some delving to identify them.  She described identifying the different languages (as varied as Japanese, Russian, Bulgarian, Latin, Esperanto, Afrikaans, Hebrew, Aboriginal and Manx, to name just some) as the most challenging part of the project and, whilst online translation tools have been helpful in identifying books with the Latin alphabet, we have some editions in Oriental languages that as yet remain unclassified. 


Translations in Hebrew, Japanese and Latin

The project has involved sorting through numerous copies not just of Alice in Wonderland, but also Alice Through the Looking Glass and other works by Lewis Carroll such as The Hunting of the Snark and the poem Jabberwocky.  The collection contains books with Alice as a character and many non-fiction titles, as well as biographies of Carroll and books of his journals, letters and photographs - including some of Alice Liddell, upon whom Carroll’s stories were based.  A couple of photos stood out for Marilyn: one that was taken of Alice later in life in America, and another taken by Lewis Carroll looking up at his future sister-in-law (another Alice) balancing on a first-floor window ledge – clearly taken in the days before health and safety! 

Alice Liddell, 1932

Marilyn told us that the most enjoyable part of her work was that every book is different, but when asked if she had a favourite edition, her response was any with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, the book’s original illustrator – these were the drawings in the Alice books she read as a child and they are how she thinks of Alice and the other characters.  She also found some of the more unusual books interesting, for instance funny versions like Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, published in 2007. 

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel; selection of Alice books in different languages

There are many other books in the Lewis Carroll collection, from a facsimile of the original handwritten text, to early and most recent editions of the Alice stories featuring numerous different illustrators, elaborate pop-up versions and stage adaptations, to name just a few.  Although a small number of books were loaned to Chester’s Storyhouse for an exhibition to coincide with a production of Alice in Wonderland in 2017, the full collection is soon to be made available for public viewing for the first time.  Take a look at our online catalogue over the coming weeks and see exactly what the collection holds. 

Marilyn is continuing to volunteer with our Local Studies department, now helping to catalogue a large amount of photograph negatives.  We would like to thank Marilyn once more for all her work on the Lewis Carroll collection, and we also wish everyone a happy World Book Day and World Book Night!

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