Almost everyone knows the children’s tale Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll either having read the book, or seen or heard, one of the many adaptations over the years. Most readers will know that Alice was a real person, one of the daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church college at Oxford and the stories were told to entertain her and her sisters. They will also know that Lewis Carroll was really the reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a 24 year old mathematics lecturer at Christ Church when he first met the Liddell’s. But what is less well known is that when the stories were first written down they were intended to just be a one off book as a gift to Alice and the title was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
The book was handwritten and illustrated by Dodgson and was given to Alice for Christmas in 1864 when she was 12 years old, although he originally came up with most of the story when she was 10 on a trip up the river for a picnic. Alice treasured the little book for decades but eventually in 1928 at the age of 75 and now a widow needing money she sold it at auction for £15,000 (approximately £860,000 today). The book was bought by Dr Rosenbach, who was an American book dealer, and he subsequently sold it in the US. The private collector who owned it died in 1948 and the book was again put up for auction this time making $50,000 (roughly $508,000 or £363,000 nowadays) and Dr Rosenbach was the top bidder at this auction as well.
This time however was to be the last time it will ever come to the market. Several American benefactors led by book collector Lessing Rosenwald obtained the book in order to give it to Britain in thanks for the gallantry of the British people during the Second World War. In November 1948 the book was brought on the liner The Queen Elizabeth across the Atlantic and presented to the British Museum with the Archbishop of Canterbury representing the country by receiving it. The book is now part of the national collection (catalogue ref MS 45700).
In 1997 The British Library published a book by Sally Brown entitled The Original Alice, which now sadly out of print but fairly easy to find on the second hand market. This tells the story of how Alice came to be written and compares Alice’s Adventures Under Ground to Alice in Wonderland with examples as to how the books differ.
The illustrations of the original book included here are from another out of print edition, a beautiful leather bound facsimile of the original produced in a limited edition run of just 3750 copies by the Folio Society in 2008, this is somewhat more tricky to track down but it is a beautiful thing to own and read. It comes in a lovely box with a ribbon to lift the book out with.
Although he never intended publication Dodgson did pass the book to his friend, the children’s novelist George MacDonald, to cast his professional eye over, before giving it to Alice. MacDonald’s children so enjoyed the book that Dodgson was eventually persuaded to publish. He significantly rewrote the tales, removing a lot of references that only really made sense to the Liddell family and adding Pig and Pepper along with The Mad Tea Party. These additions and revisions to the original text almost doubled the length and took the book up from 18000 to 35000 words.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was finally published in November 1865 in an edition of 2000 copies but in a final twist these were withdrawn as the illustrator, John Tenniel, was unhappy with the quality of the reproductions of his pictures. This makes the handful of copies that still exist one of the rarest of all children’s books. The book was finally available to the public in 1866 and was an immediate success. Alice’s Adventures Under Ground has been printed several times in the intervening 150 years but only the Folio Society have produced a true facsimile of the book with the leather binding and colour illustrations where appropriate, however it is worth searching out a copy of the text as first written as it gives a view of the story that Alice herself first heard and it is quite different to the text that we all know.