The Pinteresting Broken-Doll Aesthetic of Neo-Victorian Alices
By Amanda Lastoria, Simon Fraser University
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) endures as one of ‘the most popular children’s classics in the English language’[i], thanks to the creative vision and commercial savvy of Lewis Carroll and his contemporary publishers. Carroll created not just the Alice text, but the Alice books. Carroll was an art director. He oversaw the illustration, design and production of the first edition of Alice, and he (re)published the text in multiple editions that strategically segmented the Victorian children’s book market. Carroll established an Alice industry that continues to thrive. How is the popularity of this nearly 150-year-old text maintained in the twenty-first-century book market? Like Carroll, contemporary publishers play with aesthetics as a means of segmenting the Alice audience. Neo-Victorian Alices are broken-doll versions of her Victorian selves. Neo-Victorian editions twist Carroll’s aesthetics to repackage Alice in a wide range of high- and low-end editions that variously target children and adults. This blog post uses Pinterest to visually progress from a reconstruction of Carroll’s creative and commercial frames of reference to a display of the editions of Alice that he art directed to, finally, a survey of Neo-Victorian editions of Alice.
The book design and production values of the Carroll-directed Victorian editions of Alice can be argued to be definitive or authoritative in the sense of bibliographic studies; Neo-Victorian editions necessarily rework Carroll’s aesthetics. Neo-Victorian editions recall something of Carroll’s aesthetics, but they subvert any nostalgia or familiarity the reader may bring to the text. For example, some editions use the well-known John Tenniel illustrations that Carroll directed, but those editions are fronted with covers that are sparse and typographic or feature a revamped Alice; they ultimately aim to reposition Alice as a contemporary book. Rich colour palettes, substantial white space and exaggerated body parts create a dark, isolating and quirky Wonderland that is apparently at odds with the fairy-tale world that Carroll envisioned.
Neo-Victorian editions tend to trade on a kind of broken-doll aesthetic. Illustrations most clearly communicate this aesthetic, by way of content (e.g. disembodied Alice limbs, free-falling icons of teacups, etc.) and perspective (e.g. shifting points of view, abrupt cuts between narrative illustrations, etc.). The design and production values of the Neo-Victorian editions echo this sense of disjointedness with thin text paper wrapped in luxurious cover material, jagged display typefaces juxtaposed with a smooth serif body typeface, contrasts of saturated colours against black and white, inconsistent page layouts, rotations between portrait and landscape page orientations and so on. In all, Neo-Victorian editions reimagine Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole in a jarring fashion that breaks Carroll’s Victorian aesthetics.
This survey, and its supporting historical and industrial research, is visualized with three Pinterest boards: ‘Lewis Carroll, Art Director,’ which is primarily informed by Carroll’s diaries, correspondence and personal library holdings, captures work that shaped Carroll’s aesthetic sensibilities and, in turn, the book design and production choices that he made when publishing editions of Alice; ‘Victorian Alice Editions’ shows the four single-volume Carroll-directed editions of Alice; and ‘Neo-Victorian Alice Editions’ reviews a number of recent repackagings of Alice.
Recovering Lewis Carroll as an art director is an important step in establishing the grounds for Alice’s initial Victorian success and, subsequently, understanding its enduring Neo-Victorian creative and commercial currency. [ii]
[i] Morton N. Cohen, Lewis Carroll: A Biography (New York: Vintage, 1995), p. xix.
[ii] See also a fourth Pinterest board, ‘Further Reading in Carrollian Studies’ (http://pinterest.com/amandalastoria/further-reading-in-carrollian-studies/).
Amanda Lastoria is a PhD student in Publishing at Simon Fraser University. Her focus is on the ways in which design and production values influence the market for and the meaning of the text. She holds an MA in Publishing (Oxford Brookes University), a BA in French/Arts and Culture (SFU) and a Diploma in Arts Management (University of London). Amanda also has 14 years of industry experience. She tweets @amandalastoria.