In 1865, Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—better known by his nom de plume, Lewis Carroll—delighted readers with the topsy-turvy world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A first edition of this fantastical classic, one of 23 surviving copies, sits on the Newberry shelves. Why is this particular edition so rare? Because, and much to its illustrator’s chagrin, it is littered with unintended content. It contains 42 off-color drawings by Sir John Tenniel. Nearly 2,000 copies of the novel had been printed, and about 50 had been bound, when Tenniel objected to the quality of images. He instructed the publisher—Macmillan, working out of the Oxford University Press—to destroy the substandard copies.
Instead, they sold the prints to a U.S. publisher, Appleton, who bound and placed them in American bookshops.
In any edition, with or without off-color images, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a literary benchmark. It paved the somewhat subversive road for future authors (Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak, among others) to wrench the children’s book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery. This feat, many have argued, would not have been possible without Tenniel’s drawings. Contemporary critics dismissed Alice as a failed endeavor, but praised Tenniel for his charming illustrations. In the century that followed, these images became iconic; readers (and Disney aficionados) might recall the Mad Hatter’s bulbous nose and protruding teeth—but they might be surprised to learn that he’s a caricature of Theophilus Carter, an eccentric inventor and furniture dealer. In fact, many of the novel’s illustrations smack of the movers and shakers in nineteenth-century Britain—most notably, Bill the Lizard, who bears a resemblance to Benjamin Disraeli.
Accompanying the Newberry’s Alice are five pen-and-ink sketches, which operated as templates for Tenniel’s illustrations. These drawings appear on the blank versos of the novel’s galley-proofs, and are a testament of Tenniel’s creativity and satiric and now-recognizable edge.