A view From the Bridge

The making of Alice

Posted on behalf of Alysoun Sanders

Alice and the White Rabbit.

John Tenniel’s illustration of Alice and the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd

On 19 October 1863 an unknown mathematician, Charles L. Dodgson, was introduced to the publisher Alexander Macmillan in Oxford by Thomas Combe, director of the Clarendon Press and printer to Oxford University. Macmillan’s publishing business, established with his brother in 1843, was growing. He had built a reputation among scholars and authors as a leading academic publisher in fields such as mathematics and geology.

Dodgson, a master and tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, was friends with the Christ Church dean Henry George Liddell. On 4 July 1862 Dodgson, his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth and Liddell’s eldest daughters Lorina, Alice and Edith, rowed up the Thames to Godstow — the “golden afternoon” when Dodgson responded to Alice’s pleas for a story with the rudiments of what would become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first version was a handwritten and self-illustrated manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Underground, which Dodgson presented to Alice in 1864. The final book would be published by Macmillan under Dodgson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll.

Carroll insisted on a bold red cover for Alice’s Adventures.

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Macmillan had published Charles Kingsley’s children’s novel The Water Babies in 1863 to contemporary acclaim. Realising the potential of Carroll’s tale, he agreed to take it on a commission basis: Carroll paid for the printing and marketing, while Macmillan was paid a set commission on sales. Macmillan went on to publish all of Carroll’s books, as well as many of his works written under his own name, on mathematics, geometry and logic (as well as Lawn Tennis Tournaments: The True Method of Assigning Prizes, with a Proof of the Fallacy of the Present Method).

So, intertwined with the story of Carroll’s intrepid heroine Alice is the story of another remarkable journey — the long alliance of a brilliant author and enabling publisher who together created a world tale. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has never been out of print with Macmillan since 1865, and has been translated into more than 170 languages.

A deep bond

Carroll and Macmillan had a rare mutual respect, love of literature, and interest in education, new technologies, innovation and scientific enquiry. (A rich source for the depth of this relationship is the volumes of their outgoing correspondence in the Macmillan archive at the British Library.) The writer did not attend Macmillan’s famous “Tobacco Parliaments”, where a scientific magazine, which became Nature, was mooted. He preferred to keep his identity secret, but regularly visited Macmillan and his family and sent them puzzle books to try out before publication.

Chess diagram from Through the Looking-Glass, with the Kings in place (Macmillan, 1871).

Chess diagram from Through the Looking-Glass, with the Kings in place (Macmillan, 1871).

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

The relationship between the two men was not without some tension, however. Carroll took a great interest in the printing, design and production of his books, discussing all aspects of the process with Macmillan. His eye for beauty, order and perfection and his expertise in the then intricate, difficult technology of photography drew him to such technicalities. This could backfire. He frequently delayed publication because he was unhappy with the quality of production (or instructing the printers to let the paper dry for long enough before binding). In 1878, he insisted that slips should be inserted into copies of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There after observing that both the Kings had vanished from the chess-diagram in the front of the book.

Carroll’s meticulous instructions extended to securing parcels: a diagram showing how the string was to be knotted hung in the Macmillan post-room for many years. His careful analysis of accounts for his books, in particular the Alice volumes, caused him to question booksellers’ profits – a concern shared by Alexander and later addressed by his nephew, Frederick Macmillan, leading to the Net Book Agreement of 1899.

A technological tale

At the start of Alice’s Adventures, Alice wonders, “what is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Up to this time, children’s books were sparsely illustrated. The creative Carroll — ever interested in visual impact, particularly on his young readers — realised their importance in storytelling, however, and asked artist John Tenniel, cartoonist at the satirical magazine Punch, to illustrate the book.

These classic drawings have become as well known as the story. Beautifully capturing Alice and the characters in Wonderland and the looking-glass world, they are cleverly incorporated into the text through innovative positioning on the page.

An electrotype of Tenniel's illustration of Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice's Adventures, and the printed result.

An electrotype of Tenniel’s illustration of Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures, and the printed result.

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Tenniel first made pencil drawings, then created a tracing from which the main features were transferred in reverse to a woodblock; the drawing was finished on the block, which was then sent to be engraved by the Dalziel brothers, George and Edward. The leading Victorian commercial wood engravers, the Dalziels also worked with artistic luminaries of the day, including pre-Raphaelites John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones. Printing was not done from the blocks; more durable copper electrotypes (electros) were cast to save the wood.

Macmillan suggested their use — ultimately, sound advice from one who could not have foreseen how many copies would eventually be printed. The electros wore out after several thousand printings, after which they were melted down and recast.

The 'Mouse's Tale' in Alice's Adventures was too tricky to set in type, so was treated like an illustration.

The ‘Mouse’s Tale’ in Alice’s Adventures was too tricky to set in type, so was treated like an illustration.

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

A set of electros was held by the printer Richard Clay, who continued to print from them until the introduction of letterpress in the 1960s. A spare set is still held in the Macmillan archive, including an electro for the ‘Mouse’s Tale’. This section of text had to be treated like an illustration; it was too tricky to set, being narrow and serpentine like a tail. (For more on this, see The Complete Alice.)

After Carroll’s death, the woodblocks were handed over by his estate to Macmillan. In 1932, they were displayed at the Lewis Carroll Centenary exhibition in London, after which they were thought to have been moved to a museum or library.

However, in October 1984 Macmillan’s company secretary was called to the National Westminster Bank to open several metal trunks that had lain in its Covent Garden vault for years. To his amazement, he found the woodblocks, stored there in almost perfect conditions.

It was decided to take one unique printing from the blocks, which had never been printed from directly. This was skilfully done by the Rocket Press — 92 prints in a limited edition of 250 copies, together with a specially commissioned book on the engravings. It is copies of these prints that have been scanned to create the images for the 150th anniversary editions published by Pan Macmillan in 2015. The blocks are now in the British Library.

Alexander Macmillan's descendant Lord Stockton with Lord Boardman, chairman of the National Westminster Bank, look at the original woodblocks made by the Dalziel brothers for Tenniel's illustrations for the Alice books

Lord Stockton (great-great grandson of Alexander’s brother Daniel Macmillan) and Lord Boardman, chairman of the National Westminster Bank, look at the original woodblocks made by the Dalziel brothers from Tenniel’s illustrations.

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Publishing disaster — and triumph

In 1865, Carroll was keen for the first edition of Alice’s Adventures to come out as close as possible to the day on which the story was first told, three years before. Despite long delays, it was printed by the Clarendon Press in good time. Dodgson ordered a specially bound white vellum copy to be received by Alice Liddell on 4 July.

Then, on 19 July, the exacting Tenniel wrote to say that he was dissatisfied with the printing of the illustrations. As there were also faults with the printing of the text, all copies were withdrawn. The book, reprinted by Richard Clay, was finally published on 11 November that year in time for the Christmas market (and so bearing the year 1866 on the title page).

It was originally agreed that the unbound sheets of the faulty edition would be sold as waste paper. Instead, US firm David Appleton & Co bought them and 1,952 copies (of the original 2,000 copy print run) were sent to New York. The title page was redone with a New York imprint dated 1866, and the sheets machine-folded and put into cloth bindings. Of the copies not sent to the United States, just a few are known to have survived, and are extremely valuable.

The Macmillan file copy of the rejected printing, including 10 of Tenniel’s original preliminary pencil drawings, was acquired by Lord Swaythling around 1899. Eventually it made its way to collector Justin G. Schiller, who identified the purple markings as those made by Macmillan staff to show corrections for the new printing.

Within three weeks, 500 copies of the corrected November edition had been sold. On 23 December, The London Review deemed it “a delightful book for children” and “for grown-up people, provided they have wisdom or sympathy enough to enjoy a piece of downright hearty drollery”. That it was a trove of mathematical conundrums had yet to be discovered.

At Carroll’s death in 1898, the total number of copies sold by Macmillan exceeded 150,000.

A page from the 'Macmillan Editions Book' showing print runs from the end of 1865 to the end of 1875.

A page from the ‘Macmillan Editions Book’ showing print runs from the end of 1865 to the end of 1875.

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Almost four years after Alice’s Adventures was published, Nature emerged on 4 November 1869. It is likely that the profits from book publishing, including those from the Alice books, enabled Macmillan to continue to publish the journal for many years. Carroll himself became a contributor to Nature.

The phenomenally fruitful and occasionally fraught partnership of author and publisher lasted for over three decades. It was a bond Carroll publicly celebrated as a factor in the success of the Alice books. In his The Profits of Authorship (Macmillan, 1884), he wrote:

The publisher contributes about as much as the bookseller in time and bodily labour, but in mental toil and trouble a great deal more. I speak…having myself, for some twenty years, inflicted on that most patient and painstaking firm, Messrs. Macmillan and Co., about as much wear and worry as ever publishers have lived through. The day when they undertake a book for me is a dies nefastus for them. From that day till the book is out – an interval of some two or three years on an average – there is no pause in the ‘pelting of the pitiless storm’ of directions and questions on every conceivable detail. To say that every question gets a courteous and thoughtful reply – that they are still outside a lunatic asylum – and that they still regard me with some degree of charity – is to speak volumes in praise of their good temper and of their health, bodily and mental.

The electro of Alice and the White Rabbit.

The electro of Alice and the White Rabbit.

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Alysoun Sanders is the archivist for Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

See Macmillan’s ‘Alice: 150 years’ website here. Mathematical Wonderlands: Lewis Carroll, the Alice books and beyond — a new ebook collection of pieces by and about Carroll in Macmillan publications, Nature and Scientific American — is available here. (Morton Cohen’s The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll, published by Palgrave, also offers fascinating insights into Carroll as mathematician.) The British Library’s exhibition Alice in Wonderland runs from 20 November to 17 April 2016. 


All images are from The Macmillan Archive, © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


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