The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” is what Alice cries when she suddenly stretches to more than nine feet tall, “like the largest telescope that ever was,” in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. An illustration by John Tenniel depicts this moment from the opening of Chapter II, which can be seen in one of the images etched into the windows of the Harry Ransom Center. In the drawing, we see Alice’s large, startled eyes and open mouth expressing her surprise at her predicament. Most suggestive of her increasing height is the greatly disproportionate length of her neck, whose Victorian collar, though stretched upward, remains properly buttoned. Tenniel succeeds in manifesting Carroll’s playful imagination within this bizarre image, yet he retains a delicate beauty in the artful rendering of her hands and the folds of her apron and puffed sleeves. Tenniel was as appreciative as Carroll himself of the aesthetic beauty of childhood, and his pairing of humor with grace matches the author’s own intent for his title character. A mixture of playfulness with sincere, human perplexities is central to Carroll’s Alice books, which—like telescopic Alice—have grown so popular that they remain not just favorites in literature but are ingrained into much of our culture.
The man behind the pseudonym Lewis Carroll is the Oxford mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. On July 4, 1852, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth took the three daughters of his dean—Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell—for a boat ride on the river. For their entertainment, he invented stories as they rowed, including characters based on each of the boat’s passengers. Carroll folded the girls’ excited suggestions into the plotline and improvised the rest. Once the excursion was over, ten-year-old Alice requested that Carroll write down the story for her, so she might always be able to read it. After her insistent pestering, he did write it down, and two-and-a-half years later he presented Alice with a leather-bound manuscript, including his own illustrations, as a Christmas gift. The Liddell girls loved the manuscript, and as more children read the story, Carroll discovered its wide appeal. Literary friends, having delighted in reading the author’s drafts of the tale, urged him to publish. In October of 1863, Carroll secured the commitment of London publisher Alexander Macmillan to have his book printed.
Although at first he intended to refine and use his own drawings for the book, Carroll finally acknowledged his sketches’ limitations and set out to commission the work of a talented illustrator. The head caricaturist of Punch magazine, John Tenniel, was an obvious choice because of his renowned reputation and aesthetic sensibilities that matched Carroll’s own. Introduced by a mutual friend—the eminent dramatist Tom Taylor—Carroll met with Tenniel in January 1864 and petitioned him to create the artwork for his book. In the subsequent months, Carroll eagerly worked to expand and polish his texts, readying them for printing. Tenniel’s progress, however, was slow, and several planned deadlines passed before his blocks were completed. A first run of 2,000 copies was printed in June 1865, and a sample was delivered to Macmillan. Carroll was pleased with the finished product, and according to his diary (July 15, 1865), he inscribed “20 or more copies of Alice to go as presents to various friends.” Yet Tenniel was not satisfied with the print quality of his images and requested that the books be run again. Although the printing costs were at Carroll’s own expense, he agreed to scrap the first run and hire a new printer. Carroll had already distributed almost 50 copies, though, so he begged for their return. Ultimately, he received back all but 15. He tore out the inscription pages and then donated the books to a children’s hospital. Only 23 copies of this abandoned first edition exist today, one of which resides at the Ransom Center. The second batch of printed books pleased both author and illustrator, so Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, now dated 1866, was at last released. Children and adults alike were drawn to the delightful fantasy of Carroll’s words and Tenniel’s imagery, and the novel became an instant success. By 1872, Carroll published a sequel—Through the Looking-Glass—again with illustrations by Tenniel. The Alice books grew to immense popularity, helping to solidify the careers of both Carroll and Tenniel. Carroll continued to publish new stories, verse, and scholarly treatises, and he remained at Oxford until his death in 1898. Tenniel went on to have a prolific career as a cartoonist at Punch and was knighted in 1893 for his contributions as a cartoonist, the first one in his profession to be so recognized.
As for the Alice books, they continue to thrive long after the passing of their creators. Now translated into over 70 languages and adapted across many forms of media, from theater to coloring books, Carroll’s fairy tale enjoys a lasting influence. As biographer Morton N. Cohen has stated, “Next to the Bible and Shakespeare, they are the books most widely and most frequently translated and quoted.” Whereas most children’s literature before it had primarily been written as moral instruction, Carroll’s stories of Wonderland broke tradition by “champion[ing] the child in the child’s confrontation with the adult world,” Cohen claims. As new generations emerge, Carroll’s story remains relevant and comforting in its message of overcoming the obstacles inherent in childhood and beyond.
The Ransom Center holds several collections related to Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. The Warren Weaver collection contains first editions of Carroll’s poetry, fiction, and scholarly writings on mathematics and logic, as well as translations of the books into several languages and some of Carroll’s personal correspondence. One of the rare books in this collection is a copy of the original 1865 edition called the “India Alice,” which made its way from a Victorian hospital in England to a used bookshop in Bangalore, India, before resurfacing in 1961. The Byron and Susan Sewell collection comprises twentieth-century editions of the Alice books, as well as secondary adaptations, parodies, and nonfiction that the original publications inspired. Such a rich assortment of materials provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the genesis of this cherished tale and the man who imagined it.
Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.