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Desperately Seeking Alice
The plot of Linda Fairstein’s Lethal Legacy, set in the New York Public Library‘s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, pivots on a copy of a rare 1866 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 1866 marks the year of the earliest approved edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, illustrated by Punch cartoonist John Tenniel. Copies of the 1866 edition in the New York Public Library are in the double digits. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of American Literature alone has seven copies, including Alice Pleasance Liddell’s copy of the book, bound and inscribed for her by the author.
Alice Liddell was one of three of the daughters of Dr. H.G. Liddell, Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford where Charles Dodgson (the pseudonymous Lewis Carroll) lectured in Mathematics. As the story goes, Dodgson, who sometimes photographed the sisters (in images famously scrutinized), took his subjects for a boat ride on July 4, 1862. The voyage was interrupted by a laze on the shore, where he was petitioned for a story. Thus, Alice was born.
What readers of Lethal Legacy and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may not know is that the true first edition of the book was published in 1865. It is this scarce earliest edition, printed in London by Macmillan, that remains the most tantalizing prize for Alice seekers.
A look at the history of Alice’s publication explains the scarcity of the 1865 edition. In late 1864, the book was assembled. The pages were bound in time for the Christmas trade, but the publication date was given on the title page as 1865. Carroll procured 50 advance copies to distribute to his friends. Of these, he kept two, bound in vellum, for himself.
The 1865 Alice was poised for wide distribution, but for a complication: Tenniel didn’t think the print job on his illustrations was up to snuff. He demanded that the book be redone. The resulting 1866 London Macmillan printing was received warmly by the book’s illustrator (whether the illustrations in the 1866 edition were actually improved is a matter of some debate).
Only 50 copies in all—the copies Carroll requested in advance—bear the 1865 date. What happened to these copies is enough to keep some Alice collectors awake nights.
After Tenniel rejected the 1865 printing, Carroll sought to retrieve the copies he had given away to his friends. The majority of those that went unreturned—an estimated 15 copies or so—are in libraries and private collections today.
Exactly how many 1865 editions were returned to Carroll is unclear, but we do know that in the fall of that year, Carroll had 34 copies in his possession, plus the two vellum copies. The returned copies were again given away-- to a doctor friend, a clergyman, and the bulk, to several children’s hospitals in England.
These hospital copies would have been read until well-worn in hospitals by large volumes of sick children. The 1865 Alice would not have been recognized as valuable for another 30 years, long after the hospital books would have been replaced or lost. The chances for survival of these copies was extremely unlikely.
And yet. In the early 1950’s, an English coffee planter, L.C. Kent-Morgan, was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in a go-down in Bangalore, South India, where he lived. He often visited the old bookshop, run by a young man, and was used to the clusters of dusty books piled on the floor. It was in one of these piles that Kent-Morgan came across a well-scuffed copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The condition was poor, but Kent-Morgan wanted to read it again, and the date, 1865, interested him. He bought it on the spot.
The inside of the front cover bears two interesting annotations. The first of these is the name “Alice Cousins”. The second reads “Metropolitan Convalescent Institution Children’s Branch August, 1866”. The home, now the Lanthorne Convalescent Home, is located in Kent. All records of patients at the home were destroyed during World War II, but it seems likely that Cousins was a patient there. Perhaps her father was a diplomat or a missionary, and she took the book with her to India, where it was consigned, nearly ninety years later, to the shop where it was found.
The New York Public Library also has its own copy of the 1865 edition, in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The book’s early history is unknown, though the name Anthony Lucy is given on the first blank page facing the front end paper. The book’s condition suggests that it was probably not a hospital copy. It seems unlikely that its journey was as far-flung as that of the “India” Alice (now at the University of Texas). But it is one of only a handful of copies of this precious early edition to have survived.
For more on the “India Alice” or on the 1865 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, check out Justin Schiller’s book and v. 65, 1971 of The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. Please note that the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection’s editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland do not have records in the New York Public Library’s online catalog. For more information on the Berg Collection volumes, please consult the Dictionary Catalog here. Copies of the 1866 edition in other collections at the New York Public Library can be found here.