Alice in Wonderland is a tale that has followed me just as Alice follows the White Rabbit. Her pubescent exploration of a confusing topsy-turvy land has stuck to me, appears when I don’t expect it. I realise I return to her rabbit hole regularly even now.
When I research I fall down the rabbit hole. Following what I find curious into darkness: dark corners of libraries, into the dark fathoms within books. Day after day I fall into different rabbit holes, some of which are dead ends, others that thankfully lead to wonderlands. Research is as strange and a mutable as Alice’s Wonderland and the joy of research stems from a curiosity like Alice’s. When I read I float like Alice in her rabbit hole – in a dark unknown, in a time suspended, a time that catches my skirt into a parachute and warps the ticking of the clock I should be following. Curiosity in the library – in the words of Alice – can ‘often lead to trouble’.
When Alice follows the white rabbit with a waistcoat and watch into an inadvisably small hole to fall down into another, more imaginative world that makes little sense, she enacts the experience of researching.
Yet. And yet, Alice in Wonderland shadows me ever further. For in my research I have taken myself to a wonderland much like Alice’s – a place of dreams and nightmares, myth and fantasy, full of strange and marvelous creatures.
The difference is that the wonderland of my research exists – can be traversed, touched, smelt and felt. It is a garden, built in sixteenth-century Italy, a woodland garden, where you will come across two fighting giants 7.7 metres tall, enter a gaping face where sounds resonate from the interior cave, see a sea creature with yawning jaws rise from the earth, and meet mythical Sirens and Harpies. It is a place as topsy-turvy as that land Alice wanders. A place, which I hope will tell us something of place, embodiment, imagination and fantasy in early modern Italy. In Through the Looking Glass, the second book of Lewis Caroll’s Alice tales, the White Queen lives backwards:
“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”
“– but [said the White Queen] there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”
My memory only works one way, in the words of Alice I sadly ‘can’t remember things before they happen’. But in my research I remember Alice, her wonderland echoes in mine and it is with her beside me that I fall down rabbit holes.
Thalia Allington-Wood is currently in the first year of her PhD in the History of Art Department of University College London. Her research explores the Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo, a sixteenth-century woodland of monsters and marvels carved from stone.