Alice Through the ‘Hands-Off’ Glass

If you want to learn the story behind an object, I’d suggest that you meet it first. Libraries and archives can be wonderlands where you meet all manner of strange things. To prove it to you, I went to the University of Melbourne’s Reading Room to leaf through pages of an early edition of ‘Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There’ by Lewis Carroll.

Alice cover

Glass museum cabinets sometimes remind me of retirement homes. They’re decked out with frills and trimmings, full of old treasures being preserved as best as possible against time along with all their stories. They can also be a little institutionalized, requesting with polite aggression that you”please, do not touch the glass”. I’d like to show you that they’re more accessible than this. There are places where you can sit down with collections to discover stories that are diverse and relevant to you. I went through some of the University of Melbourne’s collections as a start (they’re open to the public). If 15th Century music manuscripts are your thing, there’s the Hanson-Dyer Collection. Pulp and popular fiction? Then check out the Douglas Taylor Collection. Have an assignment on Evolution? Borrow a first edition 1859 copy of Darwin’s On the Origins of the Species. Or perhaps you’d rather travel 1970s-style with the early Lonely Planet Collection. There are thousands of other rare materials you can order to view in the Reading Room.

I was scrolling through the collection catalogue and saw an edition of Through the Looking-Glass that was printed just a year after it was first published. Written by Charles Dodgson under the pen name of Lewis Carroll (1871), it followed on from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). With its ludicrously irking poem, Jabberwocky, Through the Looking-Glass was a childhood favourite of mine. So I clicked ‘request’ on the right hand side of the screen, put in an e-mail address, a viewing date and turned up at the Reading Room on level three of the Baillieu Library. That’s it. Once you get to the Reading Room they’ll ask for photo id and give you a key so you can put away your things (you’re allowed to bring in a camera/phone, laptop, paper and pencils – no pens).

This is what I found.

Inside alice1 Inside alice2

If you’re an Alice fan, these probably just look like slightly more yellowed versions of the copy you own. But…this is the reason why you should meet the objects that interest you. In person, there are secrets and stories that they will give up to you.

Alice ad 1Alice ad 2

I turned to both the first and last pages of the text. There, I found advertisements for an easily digested Egyptian pea flour as well as a ‘fruit salt’ fit for Carroll’s own Red Queen.  It claimed to reverse the effects of insufficient exercise that “frequently deranges the liver”. Apparently, “a world of woes is avoided” by taking the salts. While I’m not entirely sure what they were made from, its makers promised total honesty – “without it life is a sham”. The ads hint at the things that concerned readers in the late 19th Century. Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, advertised here as a cure for coughs and colds, eventually went out of production due to its high opiate content.

Alice ad 3Alice chess

Through the Looking Glass begins with an image of a chess board. Carroll had been teaching the daughters of family friends (Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell) the rules of chess, using pieces as some of the characters in the book. The very first edition used the White Knight as its front cover illustration after Carroll judged John Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock to be too fussy.Carroll’s chess pieces come to life, just as collections can when you reach beyond closed doors and ‘hands-off’ signs to uncover their stories. You’ll find things that are strange and unexpected.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax – of cabbages – and kings” – Lewis Carrol, The Walrus and the Carpenter.


Through the looking-glass, and what Alice found there by Lewis Carroll, with Fifty illustrations by John Tenniel (London: Macmillan, 1872) can be found here in the Cultural Collections. All the images in this entry are those I took of this copy.

Have a look at the Reading Room website if you’d like to see something for yourself. There’s also a guide on how to search different sections of the catalogue.





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