“My name is Alice, so please your Majesty.”
Socially awkward and shy, Lewis Carroll (born Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898) always preferred the company of children to adults; he spun stories, performed magic tricks, and composed jokes and riddles for his many young friends.
On July 4, 1862, Carroll went for a row on the Thames in Oxford with three daughters of the dean of Christ Church College: Lorina, Edith, and 10-year-old Alice Liddell (1852-1934). Dodgson told them the story of a mischievous young girl, also named Alice, who fell down a rabbit hole, embarking on a fantastical adventure.
At the urging of friends, Carroll expanded his story, publishing it in 1865 under a now-famous pseudonym to separate the work from his many academic publications. Despite the fact that it was a strange book by an author with an unfamiliar pseudonym, Alice was an almost immediate success.
Reviewers responded positively to the story, and more so, to the illustrations, by Punch cartoonist John Tenniel (1820-1914). Some reviewers seemed unclear as to the intended age of the reader. A reviewer in the Spectator wrote, “big folks...will find themselves reading more than they intended, and laughing more than they had any right to expect.”
Carroll was a talented and prolific photographer of children; Alice Liddell and her sisters were among his favorite subjects. The Liddell sisters posed for this photograph in 1860, two years before the genesis of the Alice story.
The photograph of Alice alone, at age 18, was the last Carroll took of her. It is evident,” Alice later wrote, “that Mr. Dodgson was far in advance of his time in the art of photography and of posing his subjects.”
After their “golden afternoon” in 1862, when Carroll first told the story of Alice, Alice Liddell begged him to write it down for her. The manuscript, illustrated by Carroll (now in the British Library), was a Christmas gift for her in 1864, and was the basis for the published edition of the story.
Alice allowed the manuscript to be published in facsimile in 1886; many printings followed, including this one, which reproduced the manuscript in color.
The complete manuscript can be viewed on the website of the British Library.
Carroll was notoriously exacting when instructing his illustrators and printers. This letter, written to the Dalziels (who cut the engravings for the Alice books) about his 1883 book Rhyme? and Reason?, shows the eccentric manner in which he communicated his wishes. This carbon copy of the original is from Carroll’s own letter file.
Although it bears Macmillan’s imprint, this book was produced entirely at the expense of Lewis Carroll, who commissioned John Tenniel to illustrate it, and the Oxford University Press to print 2,000 copies. But the Press was unused to printing illustrations of such delicacy, or handling the complex typography in such a book. The result was so poor – muddy illustrations, numerous wrong-font letters – that partly at Tenniel’s insistence Carroll withdrew the whole edition before publication, thus making it one of the greatest rarities among important Victorian books. No more than 23 copies with the 1865 title survive: shown here is a rebound copy and one in a special white vellum binding which Carroll presented to Alice Liddell, and then requested be returned when he suppressed the edition.
John Tenniel was already a prolific and successful illustrator when Carroll approached him to illustrate Alice. Their collaboration was a frustrating one; Carroll closely supervised Tenniel, visiting his studio frequently and providing detailed suggestions for the size and placement of each illustration.
Despite the tension between the two men, it has become impossible to think of Carroll’s story apart from Tenniel’s artwork. His illustrations are perhaps even more recognizable than Carroll’s own text, and subsequent illustrators of the book found it difficult to reinvent Carroll’s scenes and characters.
While Carroll’s own early drawings of Alice were inspired by Alice Liddell, Tenniel himself refused a model for the character. His Alice, with her long blond hair, yellow dress with prodigious crinoline and white pinafore, and, in Looking-Glass, hair ribbon and striped stockings, is the archetypal Alice, who, despite her trials, remains poised, graceful, and unwrinkled throughout her adventure.