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The Age of Alice: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Nonsense in Victorian England


By Ronald Patkus

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of the world’s most famous works of fantasy: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first copies of the book were printed in July of 1865, to great success. In later years, other editions appeared, with new presentations. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland marked a key transition in literature, but other works incorporating fairy tales or elements of fantasy had appeared decades before and continued to appear throughout the century.

Many of these fairy tales and works of fantasy and nonsense make up part of the extensive collection of children’s books in the Vassar College Library. The collection is actually made up of several smaller collections that have been donated by alumna and friends, or developed by the library. Perhaps the most well-known is the Louise Seaman Bechtel Collection, named after the children’s book editor. Other collections donated by graduates and friends include the Clarence Lown Collection, the Elisabeth Ball Collection, the Katherine Gesell Walden Collection, and the Paula Lee Schiller Collection of Mother Goose. Also of note is the Vassar College Children’s Book Collection, which despite its name is actually a sub-set of the larger collection; it consists of books from a variety of donors and is a major resource. In addition, the Grille collection of rare books includes many high points in children’s literature. Together these collections focus on materials printed in the United States and England during the 19th and early 20th centuries, though titles from other places and times are present. There is a great variety of material, including short stories, novels, plays, poetry, primers, chapbooks, and courtesy and conduct books.

In order to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and to showcase its collection of children’s books, the Vassar College Archives & Special Collections Library has mounted the exhibition The Age of Alice: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Nonsense in Victorian England.The exhibition draws on material from several of the children’s book collections, particularly the Grille Collection and the Vassar College Children’s Book Collection. Nearly 40 books are on display, written by a variety of authors; most, but not all, are aimed at children. They are arranged chronologically, so that viewers can gain a sense of how this literary genre developed over the course of the 19th century. Here one will see both famous and not-so-famous titles. An attempt has been made also to highlight the illustrations produced by various artists, since they were an important part of the experience of reading these books. In addition, one will see stories and novels as they appeared not just in book form, but also in periodicals of the time. It is interesting to know that several of the books went through multiple editions, but we have tried wherever possible to show first editions.

This catalogue accompanies the exhibition, and in addition to a checklist, presents four complementary essays by scholars working in the fields of history, bibliography, and children’s literature. Lydia Murdoch opens the catalogue with an introduction to the history of children and childhood in the Victorian era. My own essay follows by offering an overview of key fairy tales and works of fantasy and nonsense that appeared during these years. The next essay, by Nikolai Firtich, adds an international perspective to this catalogue by focusing on literary connections between Lewis Carroll and the Russian Avant-Garde. Finally, the postscript by Nancy Willard is a reprint of an essay that originally appeared in the Knight Letter, the journal of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America; in it she recounts how she became introduced to Alice’s Adventures and how Lewis Carroll influenced her as a writer. Together these pieces highlight an important strain in 19th century literature, and its impact on other places and times.

I would like to thank a number of people who were involved in this project. First, I must begin by thanking Justin Schiller and Dennis M V David, who during a pleasant afternoon discussed the exhibition with me and offered the title as an organizing theme. Next, I’m grateful to Vassar faculty who early on became interested in the anniversary of Alice’s Adventures and ways of marking it; they include Lydia Murdoch, Nikolai Firtich, Nancy Willard, Julie Riess, and Dan Ungurianu. My colleagues in the Vassar Communications Office (Carolyn Guyer, Jeff Macaluso, George Laws, Janet Allison, Julia Fishman, and Tamar Thibodeau), as usual, cheerfully attended meetings and worked hard to produce this publication, a website, and appropriate publicity. Other Vassar colleagues played a part too, including Sharyn Cadogen (photography), and Baynard Baily and Amy Laughlin (audiovisuals). Dee Wilson organized a number of Alice-related events for Vassar’s Modfest. Conservator Nelly Balloffet assisted with preparing individual items to be displayed. Without the contributions of all of these people the project would not have been possible.

I hope you will enjoy spending time at the exhibition and reading the essays that follow.