Reg Little learns about preparations for the 150th birthday of a timeless children’s book

Alice’s Day has fast established itself as an unmissable annual event in Oxford for hundreds of children and anyone partial to dancing a Lobster Quadrille, come to that.

A host of activities ensure that large parts of Oxford are transformed into Wonderland for one magical day, with events co-ordinated by The Story Museum.

But this Saturday, Alice’s Day will be a particularly memorable affair, for it will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Story Museum in Oxford has been busily recruiting 150 Alices to ensure a spectacular launch to the day. (And interesting one too, given that applications were “open to all regardless of gender or age – all we ask is that you are available between 9.30am and 12.30 and are able to provide your own costume.”) All 12 chapters of the book will be played out across the city. For the chapter in which Alice meets the Gryphon and Mock Turtle and learns to dance a Lobster Quadrille, the public are invited to re-enact this at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History.

A Mad Hatter’s tea party with a giant Wonderland cake will be held at The Story Museum, Oxford Castle will be hosting a Frabjous food fair, and the Queen of Hearts will be enjoying croquet at the County Court.

Fans will be able to learn how Alice has been portrayed over 150 years, with the original printing plates on display at the Bodleian Library and photographs of the real Alice Liddell in Christ Church library.

The date July 4, 1862, is always recalled as the day it all began: for that was the so-called golden afternoon when the Oxford mathematics don Charles Dodgson took Alice Liddell and her sisters on a Thames boat trip from Folly Bridge upstream towards Binsey and Godstow.

The story of how he told the children a story about a little girl tumbling down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called Wonderland – and how the delighted 10-year-old Alice begged him to write it down – is well known.

The world had to wait until 1865 to read the stories famously narrated to the girls – and the saga of its eventual publication is itself quite a convoluted tale.

It is said the man known to the world as Lewis Carroll began writing the book soon after the boat trip, while travelling on the 9.02 train from Oxford to London. He drew the illustrations himself, borrowing a book of natural history from the Deanery at Christ Church to help him with the animal sketches.

Dodgson was to present the first manuscript volume of Alice’s Adventures Underground with his own illustrations to Alice Liddell in November 1864 as an early Christmas present. That manuscript is now at the British Museum.

When Dodgson showed his illustrations to staff at Punch, they persuaded him they were not good enough to be published and recommended the magazine’s celebrated illustrator John Tenniel.

The Oxford University Press was already printing Dodgson’s mathematical work and his old tutor Bartholomew Price was the OUP’s Secretary, effectively chief executive. So the Press was the obvious place to have the book printed.

At his own expense, Dodgson paid to have 2,000 copies printed at the OUP in Walton Street and then had 40 bound in red cloth gilt, which he sent as presents to family and friends.

When he showed one to Tenniel, the Punch man hit the roof.

Dr Martin Maw, the OUP archivist, explains: “Tenniel thought Oxford’s printing was bad. He objected so strongly to our poor workmanship that Dodgson tried to suppress the first issue. He wrote to everyone who got a bound copy as a gift and asked for it back.”

Only half were returned. Dodgson kept two for himself and rather than destroy the rejected copies, he presented them to children’s hospitals and orphanages. Despite today being worth millions, few have ever resurfaced.

Only about 20 copies of what is known as the first issue of the first edition are known to still exist. The Bodleian has one, as do some other great libraries around the world.

“Dodgson was still left with about 1,950 copies of Oxford’s unbound printing that he had paid for, which Tenniel hated,” said Dr Maw. “Dodgson sold these to a New York publisher, Appleton. The text was to be bound up and sold in the USA. This is the second issue of the first edition. It’s a copy of this US publication that we have in the OUP museum.”

To get the book published in the UK, Dodgson took the whole project to Macmillan & Co. Dr Maw said: “Macmillan re-set the text, re-cut Tenniel’s illustrations to his satisfaction, and then published the edition most people are familiar with, earning both them and Dodgson a small fortune.”

This new edition was said by Dodgson to be a “perfect piece of artistic printing”.

The Oxford printing house’s involvement may have been a piece of “jobbing” work, or vanity printing, but the company can still claim to be part of Alice’s story.

“Alice in Wonderland was the first book-length adventure to engage a child’s mind and to capture its sense of the absurd,” said Dr Maw. “Its success led to Alice becoming a notable ‘franchise’ book, as it generated a great many spin-offs, including toys, games, clothing, and even biscuit tins.”

The OUP’s museum holds the original printing plate of the book’s first edition.

Yet the great Oxford printing house hardly emerges from its part in the Alice story with its reputation entirely enhanced – for its work was found not to be up to standard. The problem seems to have been that Tenniel’s illustrations were cut on to woodblocks and there appears to have been some “bleed through”.

Expert Edward Wakeling writes in a new book: “Some of the illustrations are printed rather faintly. However, these faults with the 1865 Alice may not have justified a reprint and suggestions have been made that Tenniel was returning some of the frustration he had experienced in working with Dodgson in preparing the illustrations.”

But he admits that there is little evidence to support this idea.

Dr Maw said it was not impossible that there was a falling out between author and illustrator.

“Outside of his children’s books, Dodgson seems to have been prim and rather prickly, a devout man who was often concerned with university rules and propriety.

“That said, the illustrations are flawed. Minor details are missing in some. In others, the shadows are blotched. So I think it may have been combination of poor work and personal differences.”

Whatever the faults of the early edition, if you happen to own one, there is very special reason to celebrate Alice’s Day in style.