The Bangalore Alice

How a copy of the rare 1865 Alice In Wonderland was found in a second-hand bookshop in south India.

April 04, 2015 05:52 pm | Updated 05:52 pm IST

Only 16 or so copies of this 1865 Alice are known to exist, most of them in institutional collections.

Only 16 or so copies of this 1865 Alice are known to exist, most of them in institutional collections.

I had of course heard of the India Alice — that scruffy, monsoon weathered copy with a mysterious past that is often referenced in antiquarian collecting and dealing circles. Apparently it had turned up, quite extraordinarily, in some Indian bazaar in the 1950s when an Englishman bought it and took it back to England not fully realising what it actually was: the true first printing of Alice In Wonderland , the scarce 1865 copy that preceded the authorised 1866 first edition from Macmillan. Only 16 or so copies of this 1865 Alice are known to exist, most of them in institutional collections. And this particular ‘India’ copy was even scarcer — belonging to the dozen or so ‘Hospital’ copies thought to have totally perished. Though Warren Weaver, who eventually came to own this copy, set the story straight in the journal The Private Library ( Vol. 6, No. 1), collectors and dealers still like to think of this copy as having popped up in a fruit and vegetable bazaar in North India. It was actually found in Bangalore, in a garage on Museum Road that had just become a second-hand bookshop.

The man who found this legendary 1865 Alice in Bangalore, and reluctantly bought it, L.C. Kent Morgan, could only dimly recall those days in a letter he wrote to Weaver: “The bookshop was situated in a go-down to the compound of a bungalow in Museum Road. It was owned by a young Indian, whose name I cannot now remember. He obviously purchased en-bloc from auction houses because they were in heaps all over the floor with no attempt to sort them out …I found this little shop in 1950 — and thereafter whenever I was in Bangalore I used to go and poke around to see if I could find anything of interest. It was on one of those visits that I came across Alice , priced at 1/8 rupees (about 2/3 shillings)… It was not long afterwards that I found the shop no longer in existence: whether the proprietor had moved elsewhere, or whether he had given up altogether I do not know.”

When I first read this article by Warren Weaver in Private Library , I sat up straight and read it again. I had a hunch what this godown could be and who the young bookseller was, and wanted to find out more. But before that, something more on the 1865 Alice copy: Lewis Carroll had asked Macmillan for 50 advance copies to give to friends. Its illustrator John Tenniel was unhappy with the way the illustrations had turned out and wanted a new print run. This Macmillan did, and distributed and sold the official Alice in 1866. Carroll asked his friends to return the 1865 advance copies and donated some of the returned copies to various children’s hospitals. The tiny print run from 1865 has now become the more-sought-after Alice . And the few marked as hospital copies are scarcer and more highly desired.

After Kent Morgan bought this very scarce Alice from this Bangalore go-down bookshop without realising how valuable it was (and alas the young Indian bookseller also missed out on its bibliographical importance and market value letting it go for a song) he carried it back to England, placing it in his home library. In 1961, Weaver says, Morgan’s attention was drawn to a notice in the paper talking about how rare and expensive the 1865 Alice was, and on seeing this, he rushed to examine his copy and found it to be that most-sought-after edition.

At that time Hodgson on Chancery Lane was the more famous book auction house, so he took it over there. The book dealer Lew Feldman of the House of El Dieff bought it for £880 — a modest sum, points out Weaver. Eventually, Weaver went on to buy it from Feldman, and found scratched inside evidence that this was one of those ‘Hospital Alice ’ copies donated by Carroll. Warren Weaver seems to have been the first owner of the ‘India Alice’ who was interested and curious enough to find out more details about the origins of this copy. He found out Kent Morgan had owned the book originally and wrote to him, and it was Morgan who was able to tell him it was found not in some Indian bazaar but in a second-hand bookshop in Bangalore.

I dimly remembered that K.B.K. Rao had first begun his bookshop in a garage on Museum Road. Talking to Murthy and Sanjay of the present Select Bookshop, it was easy enough to see the godown Kent Morgan refers to was the Select Book Club that Rao had started in the late 1940s. Rao had been a frequent buyer at the Cohen Auctions on St. Marks Road, coming all the way from Kurnool just to attend the auction. Robertson, a retired Englishman and bibliophile who also attended auctions, befriended K.B.K. and invited him to use his garage on his spacious Museum Road bungalow compound. A pity Rao simply handed over a bibliographical treasure to the browsing Englishman but how many, then or now, can really spot a 1865 Alice in a rubble of books, and also grasp its actual worth and significance?

But how did a rare hospital copy of the 1865 Alice land up in Bangalore? It’s possible, Weaver says, that the book had been given to a little girl (Alice Cousins) sick in a London hospital, probably the daughter of a civil servant posted to India, and (I’m guessing) who then retired in Bangalore. When leaving, it was usual for many British families to pack off their books to auction houses such as Cohens on St. Marks, from which lot Rao must have bid and won.

Now that its provenance has been established a little more (if not fully — who was Alice Cousins?), I hereby, in honour of K.B.K. Rao, re-christen the India Alice copy as ‘The Bangalore Alice.’

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