“A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—”
So begins the final poem Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, providing an eloquent end to Alice’s adventures and – on closer examination – a hint as to her origins.
For surely, it was a July evening in 1862 when mathematician and Oxford University lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (best known for his pen name, Lewis Carroll) embarked on a rowing trip along the river Thames with his friend Robinson Duckworth and the three daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Oxford’s Christ Church:Edith, Lorina, and Alice.
It was on this trip, beneath a sunny sky, when Dodgson dreamed up his tale of a curious girl named Alice who tumbles through a rabbit hole and emerges in a strange and wonderful land. A gifted storyteller, Dodgson’s tale captured the imaginations of his young passengers – so much so that the real Alice implored him to commit it to paper.
Dodgson was happy to oblige, and spent the next two years crafting a 90-page, hand-printed book complete with an expanded story and 37 illustrations. In November 1864, he presented it to Alice under the title Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, with an inscription reading “A Christmas gift to a dear child, in memory of a Summer day”.
Thankfully, Alice’s gift did not remain the only copy for long. Dodgson shared the manuscript with his mentor and author George Macdonald, whose children were also quick to fall in love with the tale. Encouraged by Macdonald’s feedback and the support of his friends, Dodgson struck a deal with publisher Alexander Macmillan to pay for the book’s printing if Macmillan helped bring it to shelves.
But not before making a few more adjustments…
Eager to broaden Alice’s make-believe world, Dodgson nearly doubled the size of his original manuscript to include new characters and events – many of which, like the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea-Party, would go on to become as important to the book’slegacy as Alice herself. Worried that Alice’s Adventures Under Ground may sound like a story with “instructions about mines”, he also brainstormed a new title.
With his revisions in place, Dodgson enlisted English artist Sir John Tenniel to recreate his illustrations for the first edition. Tenniel agreed and submitted his drawings on paper where they were then etched onto woodblocks and recreated as metal electrotype reproductions for print.And so, on July 4, 1865 – exactly three years after his fateful boat ride – the first 2000 copies were released under Dodgson’s Lewis Carroll pseudonym and the book’s new name, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Unfortunately, those debut copies would not last long. Tenniel’s illustrations did not transfer well in the printing process, and the illustrator urged Dodgson to scrap the initial run. With his funds already drained, Dodgson found another printer and produced a new, superior version. Meanwhile, all but a handful of the first editions were recalled, saved for some that were donated to children’s hospitals and other charitable recipients.
Re-released in November 1865, the revised first edition became an instant literary classic, selling thousands of copies by end of 1866. A favourite among children and adults alike, it spawned a series of new editions, reprints, and a sequel over the next century and a half.
Today, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be read in 176 languages and the story has inspired countless re-tellings and new interpretations across all mediums.
As for the original? Dodgson’s hand-made masterwork remains in the care of the British Library, where it is being preserved for generations of daydreaming adventurers to come.