Alice’s Adventures in the Rare Book Stacks

Happy 150th anniversary of the second edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!

(This week’s blog post has been contributed by Tess Goodman, a doctoral student in the Centre for the History of the Book, who has been volunteering with us.)

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The second edition? Wait—what about the first edition? Well, the first edition of Alice, printed in 1865, was suppressed before publication. But don’t get too excited: this isn’t a tale of censorship. It’s a tale of quality control.
The 1860s are now sometimes called the golden age of book illustration. Cheap illustration technology was relatively new, and illustrated books were very, very popular. Even fiction for adults was usually illustrated: the first editions of works by Dickens and Thackeray, for example, were full of pictures. In the 1860s, even well-reputed painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Millais were producing work for books, and the average quality of illustration was higher than ever. Illustration could make or break a title.
Alice was illustrated by John Tenniel, a well-known cartoonist for Punch. The first copies were printed in the summer of 1865, and Charles Dodgson (who went by the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) began sending presentation copies to his friends before the official release.
But then Tenniel saw a copy. He thought that his illustrations had been badly printed. In fact, he found the printing so poor that he complained to Dodgson, who complained to the publisher, who canceled the entire edition. Macmillan reprinted all 2,000 copies. Dodgson sent letters to friends who had already received copies, apologizing for the quality. The rejected sheets were sold to a publisher New York, who published them in America with a new title page.*

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The second edition, published in 1866, was the first to appear in Britain. The pictures in this post are from Edinburgh’s copy of this edition, which is bound with a first edition of Through the Looking-Glass. Hopefully these pictures demonstrate what the fuss was about: these illustrations are spectacular.
Tenniel did forty-two illustrations for Alice. They were so popular that for Through the Looking-Glass, he did fifty. These pictures brought, and bring, joy to everyone who sees them—except their creator. Tenniel found Dodgson so pernickety and difficult that he almost refused to work on Looking-Glass; it took Dodgson and Macmillan years to convince him. Afterwards, he wrote: ‘with Through the Looking-Glass the faculty of making drawings for book illustration departed from me… I have done nothing in that direction since…’. ** (60). And he never did again.

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Nevertheless, we’re glad to have these books at Edinburgh. As you can see from these pictures, our copies are in slightly poor condition. But most children’s books are very hard to find in good condition: the children reading them don’t worry about preserving them for future generations. In the case of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, the binding might be rubbed and the joints might be shaky, but the printing is still impeccable.

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*That makes them the second issue of the first edition, if you are bibliographically-minded enough to care. The presentation copies that still had the British title page were the first issue of the first edition. Only fifteen are extant.
** Quoted in Sydney Herbert Williams and Falconer Madan. The Lewis Carroll Handbook: being a new version of A handbook of the literature of the Rev. C. L. Dodgson. Revised by Roger Lancelyn Green. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. P. 60.

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