What do the sci-fi action thriller “The Matrix,” a suite of Salvador Dali’s paintings and Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer-prize winning nonfiction book Godel, Escher, Bach have in common? Each, in its own way, was influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
But when the children’s book was first published, in 1865, the illustrator described it as “disgusting.”
Not because the artist, John Tenniel, was offended by the whimsical content – but, as the Independent wrote on the 150th anniversary of the event, because of shoddy print quality. Some of the pictures had come out unevenly, with patches alternatively too light or too dark. Unhappy, Tenniel wrote to the author (who, when he was not writing children’s literature went by his birth name, Charles Dodgson), to have the initial print run pulled.
Dodgson had already passed out 50 copies to friends, but ceded to the illustrator’s request. “Finally decided on the reprint of Alice,” Dodgson wrote in his diary, according to the Independent, “and that the first 2,000 shall be sold as waste paper.” It would cost Dodgson, who was by that time also a mathematician and Oxford University don, about 600 pounds, a princely sum in 1865. He noted, according to Christie’s auction house, that Tenniel was “entirely dissatisfied with the printing of the pictures.” Dodgson asked for the early copies back.
Not everyone, it seems, acquiesced. In particular, George William Kitchin, one of Dodgson’s colleagues, gave a first print copy to his daughter Alexandra. She, in turn, was a favored photograph model of Dodgson’s, according to The Guardian. (Dodgson was a prolific photographer for his time, frequently taking portraits of young women – the motives of which would later be controversially interpreted.) Alexandra Kitchin kept the book until 1925, dying on the same day that she sold it, says Christie’s.
“This book is extremely rare,” said Francis Wahlgren, Christie’s director of Science & Books, said on the auction house’s website. “Seeing an 1865 ‘Alice’ is a very special thing.”
Years later, the original copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that survived its waste paper fate is estimated to be worth a princely sum in 2016: Between $2 million to $3 million, in Christie’s view, which will put the book up for auction in June once it completes a tour of the West Coast. Only 22 other copies of the first version of the book are known to still exist, with the majority belonging to libraries.
Perhaps Carroll, the master of nonsense verse and noted fan of playing games, would be tickled by the apparent incongruity of a “disgusting” book turning into a fantastically valuable object.