As the world celebrates 150 years of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland with exhibitions, shows and talks, I found myself celebrating in my own quiet, bookish way: by looking for rare or interesting illustrated editions of Alice. It all began a few months ago when a Limited Editions Club copy of Alice came my way. To my almost immediate regret I passed on it, and consoled myself saying: well, here’s one that got away. In my collection there are many examples of rare books that I have determinedly chased after, but there are also a few that I have missed acquiring. And it is the ones you let go off that you hanker after, isn’t it? What was so interesting about this Alice copy that I had passed over? The two volume LEC edition of 1932 is signed by the real Alice – Alice Hargreaves.
The limitations page from the unbound LEC edition would be sent by the publisher to Ms. Alice Hargreaves, which she would sign and return. These would be then bound into the book designed by Frederic Warde. Alas, though, before all the copies could be signed, Alice died. Beyond its literary importance –the brilliant text, the delightful illustrations- what is the publishing significance of this curious and enduring modern classic of 1865? “It’s sometimes said that Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were the origin of all later children’s literature,” noted Philip Pullman. “There were books for children before 1865, but they were almost all written to make a moral point. Good children behave like this; bad children behave like that, and are punished for it, and serve them right. In Alice, for the first time, we find a realistic child taking part in a story whose intention was entirely fun. Both children and adults loved them at once, and have never stopped doing so. They are as fresh and clever and funny today as they were a hundred and fifty years ago.”
I felt quite compelled now to learn more about how Alice’s centenary was being observed around the world. In Japan, for instance, several acclaimed artists were making their own illustrations of Alice’s wonderland. And at the Morgan Library in New York, the original manuscript is on display, the first time in nearly over thirty years that it has left the British Museum in London. New translations of Alice have been commissioned – from an Alice done into Egyptian hieroglyphs to an emoji version to one in Dari and Pashto, two Afghan languages. At the time I passed on that particular LEC copy (which was available at half the market price), I realize perhaps I wasn’t as fully steeped in Alice lore – that is, in the aura of Carroll’s great imaginative classic. Because what could be better than an Alice copysigned by Alice herself? Alice rarities were not my focus then, and so I dithered because it would stretch my funds to get that copy, and I (wistfully) chalked it up to one more desirable collectible that had eluded me.
But just once in a way a collector can also get lucky, when a miss can turn into a hit! – and not long after another 1932 signed copy of Alice came my way at a price I was better prepared to pay. The provenance for this copy was probably that it belonged to someone who must have had a chance to get it signed by Alice, most likely when she came to Columbia University, New York, to accept an honorary degree. Between the first edition and the numerous editions of Alice we have today, there have been several bespoke illustrated editions. The first charming edition is perhaps this 1932 Macmillan centenary edition, done as a facsimile of the original manuscript with illustrations by Lewis Carroll himself!
Now that I had my ear close to the ground for other interesting Alice editions, I came to hear of another interesting early 1872 Alice Macmillan edition. While author signed or Alice signed copies are scarce in the market, it is relatively easier to locate copies signed by others related to the book, such as Alice’s famous illustrator, Arthur Rackham. (The Rackham edition of course, unlike the Tenniel, was done much later). Anything signed by Lewis Carroll of course was another matter. The provenance for this edition was that of a copy once in the possession of a family in Oxford who had known Lewis Carroll. It was to be auctioned privately, to raise funds for a collector’s circuit book group, so I knew I had a fair chance at making a decent bid. Not being able to participate in the auction myself I placed my maximum bid with a collector who informed me as soon as the auction was over that the copy was now mine! The hammer price was not inexpensive but luckily neither had it sky rocketed to market prices.
Now that I had the Carroll-Rackham, the next step of course was to see if I could lay my hands on anything signed by John Tenniel, Alice’s original illustrator. And to my enormous luck I found an autographed letter signed – what the trade calls an ALS -by Tenniel, addressed to a staff member of Punch magazine, to which Tenniel contributed regularly.
The previous owner of the ALS had thoughtfully laid it into another early printed Alice, an 1899 Macmillan edition, which came as a bonus. In the space of just a few months, I had experienced the lows and highs of collecting: regret at missing a highly desirable signed edition had turned into deep longing and then unexpected fulfillment.
What more can a humble collector and an Alice fan wish for? Well, what about the Pennyroyal Alice illustrated by the famous wood engraver Barry Moser, or the Dali-Alice, that rather fabulous, elusive and expensive limited edition illustrated and signed by Salvador Dali……..my chase for Alice, I realized, had perhaps only just begun.