Helena Bonham Carter on the magic and influence of Alice in Wonderland

Helena Bonham Carter
·8-min read

To celebrate the V&A's 'Curiouser and Curiouser' exhibition, which will open this summer, we invited creators from the worlds of art, literature, entertainment and even gastronomy to share memories of their enduring relationship with Lewis Caroll's groundbreaking novels. Here, the actress Helena Bonham Carter writes for us about the impact Alice in Wonderland has had on her life. Read more odes to Alice in the May issue of Bazaar, out now.

Back in 2008, my ex Tim Burton asked me to have a meeting at his office. This was unusual, for at the time, I shared a home with him and our two young children down the other end of the road. What was so important that he couldn’t ask me over Cheerios?

Seated at his desk, he announced quite formally: "I have something very important to ask you." At this point, I thought he was going to ask me to marry him. "I wonder if you would consider playing the Red Queen in my film of Alice in Wonderland?" and before I could respond, he shoved a sketch toward me. "Look, it’s got to be you, because I’ve drawn you without intending to." It was a sketch of an overly large-headed scowling queen.

Frankly, this was better than a marriage proposal. I thanked him as formally as he’d asked me and promised I’d get back to him soon. I skipped back down Englands Lane knowing inside that this was a gift of a part – I could not go wrong with a character with a huge head. Also, I was being paid to imagine my way into Wonderland and to do something that I’d done all my life, which was to indulge in all things Alice.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a wannabe Alice. I don’t recall the first time I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Wonderland has always been there, like a constant internal backdrop in the imagination. Apparently, it is the world’s most-read book after the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays. But in all honesty, I think Alice has had a more consistent presence and impact on me, and now I think of it, I’ve been in unconscious dialogue with it all my life.

Photo credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock - Shutterstock
Photo credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock - Shutterstock

I must have been about six when I got an Alice doll. She was huge – practically as big as me – and I had specifically requested her on my Christmas list. I remember belly-crawling under the tree on Christmas Eve and stealthily peeling back a corner of the wrapping paper on a promising oblong box. I espied a blue eye and yellow nylon hair: it was her. Alice was going to be my friend and companion, and take me down rabbit holes and adventures and help me work out what this confusing thing called life was.

When I was about 14, I discovered that the real Alice, Carroll’s inspiration for the books, didn’t actually have blue eyes or blonde hair, but brown eyes and brown hair like me. So when I went to Westminster School at 16, I dressed as what I thought was Alice Liddell, not entirely successfully. Louis Theroux told me recently that my look was more dairymaid, and even the formidable deputy headmaster stopped me in the middle of Dean’s Yardhollering, "BONHAM CARTER?! What have you come as????"(I did wonder what his problem was, as usually girls were reprehended for lack of clothing and revealing too much leg, while I was in full-length Victorian garb. Even my ankles weren’t visible).

Photo credit: Helena wears dress by Stella McCartney, cat mask by Piers Atkinson and vintage metal and diamanté earrings by Gillian Horsup, photographed by Tom Craig
Photo credit: Helena wears dress by Stella McCartney, cat mask by Piers Atkinson and vintage metal and diamanté earrings by Gillian Horsup, photographed by Tom Craig

I was fortuitously in a house called Liddell’s, named after the real Alice’s father, who was headmaster of Westminster before moving to Oxford University’s Christ Church College, and next-door to Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. The actual building of Liddell’s House straddled the doorway and mini-tunnel that leads from the public Dean’s Yard into the private world and school of Little Dean’s Yard. And the first time you go through it, it is a portal of architectural surprise and wonderment. The most magical entrance to a school.

Since then, I’ve pillaged and borrowed and stolen all things Alice, and woven and imported them somehow into my life. Now I come to think of it, everywhere I look at home, every view has some reference to Alice: frog footman candlesticks, teacup constructions, a teapot lamp, a chessboard teapot, an oversized pocket watch, undersized doors, bunnies, internal windows that look like mirrors, and mirrors that look like windows. In the summer, I bring the indoor furniture outside. The landing has a shopfront that started life outdoors and is now the entrance to the loo. My home is an example of topsy-turvy living, and a labyrinth with many, many doors. There are so many doors... not many visitors leave without assistance.

And I’ve dressed up time and time again in Wonderland guises (mostly as the Mad Hatter). I have more top hats than are strictly necessary, waistcoats, tailcoats, blue and white striped stockings, bunny ears... and this is not a complete inventory.

My children have been inflicted with Alice-mania too. Before she was old enough to have an opinion, I bundled my daughter into Alice pinafores and photographed her at the bottom of the long lane that leads from the busy street to the quiet of our home – a lane that, when I first encountered it, I recognised as a Wonderland rabbit hole.

I even stuffed her (sort of – no real cruelty involved) into a dollhouse. No wonder she seems to have imbibed the Carroll culture and speaks at times with a Wonderland lexicon: "Mama, I’m confuzzled today." Now, as I watch her daily sprouting vertical inches, I feel she looks like Alice herself, outgrowing her girlhood bedroom. I expect one day to see her foot sticking out of her window onto the landing.

Photo credit: Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock - Shutterstock
Photo credit: Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock - Shutterstock

Different quotes have been of particular use during different passages of my life... "Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." This is
a daily healthy ‘up yours’ to the reductive inner critic. "I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid sir, because I’m not myself, you see," is very helpful during times when grieving and when, post-death or divorce, one’s sense of self fragments and you go through a period of inner reconstruction. So much of Alice is about identity and loss of... "who in the world am I? Ah that’s the great puzzle". "Shall we have an adventure? Or do you want tea first?" I love the
sublime in bed with the mundane. We need nonsense. A cup of it daily to keep our head above getting drowned in our own seriousness. And a reminder to play and have fun.

I think this is the secret to Carroll’s potency. He acknowledges the madness – and the irrational, and I’m sorry (I’m no academic), but isn’t it remarkable that he invents, or discovers, the unconscious, about 30 years before Freud did? And is a surrealist more than 50 years before Dalí? He is radical. Carroll is cool. I was quite right to dress up as Alice at Westminster.

He has given us beyond the quotes, the images and metaphors that express so much of our emotional experience: drowning in our own tears, the outsider looking through a keyhole, trapped in a hallway of closed doors, being late, feeling too small, feeling freakishly too big... Whenever I go back to my childhood home, I feel like Alice– too big for it. Everything has shrunk, though of course, it is I who have grown up. And the sensation of passing through the actual looking glass into a Technicolor world that was hitherto beyond reach was what I felt on the nights of the births of my children... "Ah, this is what everyone is going on about." (But it might have been the drugs.)

Photo credit: Helena wears dress by Vivienne Westwood Red Label, a Swarovski headpiece and white gold and diamond earrings from Van Cleef & Arpels, photographed by Tom Craig
Photo credit: Helena wears dress by Vivienne Westwood Red Label, a Swarovski headpiece and white gold and diamond earrings from Van Cleef & Arpels, photographed by Tom Craig

For me, the biggest gift that Alice has given me, and perhaps to many others, is in the clue of shrinking: it’s a portal to our child within. I can telescope back to being little – to being six when I got my doll, to an age when I marvelled at things and was in a state of wonder. To nurture and keep alive the child within is always healthy. Virginia Woolf wrote that the Alice books were "the only books in which we become children."

So I thoroughly prescribe rereading them, importing all things Alice in whatever way you can into your life, particularly in a world where Covid-19 has enforced on us such small, boundaried lives. But it cannot boundary the travel we make in our imaginations.

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