'Curiouser and curiouser,' the life of the real 'Alice' examined
Reading the children's tale Alice in Wonderland is rite of passage for youngsters in England, where it was written, as well as America.
However, the story behind its creation is equally compelling and in their recently released book, The Real Alice in Wonderland: A Role Model for All Ages, mother-and-daughter writing team of C.M. (Cathy) and Gabriella Rubin, of Easton, describe their ancestor Alice Liddell's role in this classic. Using memorabilia, photographs and letters, the authors describe in meticulous detail how a young girl, Alice Liddell, became the inspiration for the wonderful protagonist created by Charles Dodgson, a math professor and amateur photographer who wrote under the pen name of Lewis Carroll.
On Saturday, the Rubins will greet "Alice" fans and introduce their book at Borders in dowtown Fairfield. They will be joined at the 1 p.m. program by several artists who collaborated on the book for a special book signing and Victoriana tea party. Children and their families are also invited to participate in creating a 19th century collage using doilies, buttons, pipe cleaners and other materials. When it's completed, the collage will be displayed at the Fairfield Arts Council's office, 70 Sanford St.
A portion of the Saturday and Sunday sales at Borders will be donated to the Fairfield Arts Council as part of the book store chain's Borders Benefits program.
Billie Jean Sullivan, executive director of the Fairfield Arts Council, is grateful for the outreach effort. She said the proceeds would be used to fund children's programs.
Craig Kennedy, sales manager for Borders, said that any nonprofit organization can arrange a similar benefit at the Fairfield store. "We're hoping to do one every year with the arts council," he said. "If it works out well this year, we will be back with one that's bigger and even better."
Cathy Rubin credits the idea for organizing a community-wide art project to her daughter, and co-author, Gabriella. An incoming freshman at Bard College, Gabriella is also the one who initially got the book project off the ground. During a school trip to Oxford University in England, Gabriella conducted some preliminary research on the origins of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" for a book workshop held at her high school, the Horace Mann School in Manhattan.
"I knew our family had a connection to the story and I wanted to tell the kids about the story behind the story," Gabriella explained.
According to Cathy, Alice Liddell was the "aunt of my Great Aunt Phil." She recalls having tea with her grandmother and Aunt Phil and listening to laugh as they "cracked jokes" and reminisced about Alice.
Gabriella's book talk at school in March 2007 was a "huge success" in helping hundreds of her classmates learn about the "real" Alice. She and her mother talked about possibly incorporating their material into a book. However, it wasn't until they learned that Tim Burton would be releasing his version of the story on screen that they thought a book about Alice Liddell would be a perfect tie-in.
"Alice in Wonderland is a classic that has lasted the test of time," Cathy said. Based on the number of translations and the number of times that it has been quoted worldwide, it's still considered to be the greatest children's story of all times, she said. "It will always inspire creative people to create new products for new media."
Moreover, with a familial connection to the tale, Cathy has always been intrigued with the story behind the story. "I knew that, at some time, I wanted to investigate it further," she noted.
A former marketing and creative director, as well as award-winning children's author, Cathy put out feelers to contacts in the publishing world. When she heard from Barnes and Noble that it was interested in the book, she and Gabriella scrambled to pull it all together. "There was suddenly not enough time in the day," Cathy smiled.
One of the first points of business was to get permission to use Alice Liddell's personal belongings. Cathy and Gabriella also started to extensively researc their subject, including a trip to England. One of the highlights was when they received special permission to visit the inside of the Liddell house at Oxford. "This was a great honor because filmmakers have been turned away," Cathy explained.
The mother and daughter team saw the garden where the real Cheshire cat may have lived. "It was surreal," said Gabriella.
They were also present on July 4, which is when Alice Day is annually celebrated in Oxford. "The whole town goes nuts," Cathy laughed. "Everywhere you go, there are rabbits running around saying that they're late!"
In their book, The Real Alice in Wonderland: A Role Model for All Ages, the authors state that the White Rabbit is modeled after Alice's father, Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford University. Alice's siblings are also reportedly depicted in Carroll's writings.
Dodgson, or Carroll, was a math professor at Christ College and amateur photographer. Liddell commissioned him to take photos of his children, and during their long and often boring photo sittings, he would entertain the youngsters with stories. "Alice was, without a doubt, his favorite subject," Cathy said. In fact, it was Alice who motivated him to write down "her" story. By hand, Dodgson drew every single illustration, Cathy added.
"It was a gift of love," she noted.
In much the same way, the creation of the Rubins' book was also an expression of love between mother and daughter.
Although Cathy has published two children's books on her own -- "Eleanor, Ellatony, Ellencake and Me" and "Ellie, the Perfect Dress for Me" -- she said that she would definitely work again with her daughter on another publishing project.
"I've learned a lot about writing books from Gabriella," Cathy said. "I think young adults see the things that are important that sometimes we, adults, don't see."
One of the book's unique characteristics is that it offers varied perspectives. "She wanted it to be relevant and appeal to her generation," Cathy noted.
An accomplished artist and musician, Gabriella has a good eye for visuals. In designing the book, she insisted that "every spread has to be like a painting or a collage."
The end result is a coffee-table-style, hard-cover book that is elegant and, at the same time, has the feel of a scrapbook or memory book. Its pages are filled with vintage photos of Alice and her family and artistic depictions of the story's familiar characters by artists and photographers. "Our problem is that we had too much material," Cathy said. "Everybody wanted to be part of it."
Borders is located at 1499 Post Road. For more information, call 203-256-1619.