Beside the fire, in a tilted wooden bookcase, stood Arrietty’s library. This was a set of those miniature volumes which the Victorians loved to print, but which to Arrietty seemed the size of very large church Bibles.
Mary Norton, The Borrowers[i]
There is a long tradition of miniature books, from tiny medieval illuminated manuscripts, often religious or devotional and aiming to be portable for daily worship, to the Victorian craze for miniature printed books, proof of the printing craftsmanship of the 19th century. Our tiny Alice reproduction may have set a new record in how small a minuscule book can be!
Origins, Sizes, Classifications
We could even regard cuneiform tablets from ancient Messopotamia (measuring 1⅝ x 1 ½ inches, and dating from 2000BC) as the earliest miniature books, though “preminiature books” may a more accurate term[ii].
Certainly the desire or wish for having canonical or iconic texts in miniature format goes back a long way. The idiomatic phrase “in a nutshell”, defined by the OED as “suggesting great condensation, brevity, or limitation”[iii], was originally an allusion to a copy of Homer’s Iliad, which was supposedly small enough to be enclosed in the shell of a nut. In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, we read:
Instances of acuteness of sight are to be found stated, which, indeed, exceed all belief. Cicero informs us, that the Iliad of Homer was written on a piece of parchment so small as to be enclosed in a nut-shell[iv].
What is ironic here is that Cicero’s statement cannot be verified: it must have appeared in one of his works now long lost. Was really the Iliad ever contained in a nutshell, or was this just a rumour, or a dream?
As Bromer and Edison explain[v], miniature books come with their own classifications and categories:
Macrominiatures 3-4 inches in height
Miniatures 1-3 inches in height
Microminiatures ¼-1 inch in height
Ultra-microminiatures less than ¼ inches in height
The tiny Alice book this project had produced may well need its own new term, as its size is significantly smaller than the ultra-microminiature: the size of each page is 85×60 microns, and the letters measure 2 microns in height. We propose the term: Nanominiature!
Victorian Miniature Books
As attested in Mary Norton’s children’s classic The Borrowers (see above), the Victorians loved miniature books, as much as they loved microscopes and microphotographs. Lewis Carroll himself owned 16 miniature books, part of the Pickering Diamond Classics series. William Pickering of London was famous for his 9-volume miniature set of Shakespeare, but they also published a series of Greek, Latin, Italian, and English classics in the 1820s, measuring around 3 15/16 inches (so, strictly speaking, macrominiatures as per the table above). Pickering’s edition of the works of Horace, the first of their Diamond Classics to be published, slightly exceeded 3 inches in height, and it was also the first English book of any size to be published in cloth[vi]. Lewis Carroll owned this particular Pickering miniature book, among his extensive collection:[vii]
- [Bible]. Novum Testamentum Græcum. (London: G. Pickering, 1828).
- Catullus. Tibullus et Propertius. (London: G. Pickering, 1824).
- Cicero. M.T. Ciceronis Libri de Officiis, De Senectute, et De Amicitia. (London: G. Pickering, 1821). [2 copies]
- Dante Alighieri. La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri. (London: Pickering, 1823). [2 copies]
- Homer. Homeri Ilias et Odyssea. (London: G. Pickering, 1831).
- Horace. Quintus Horatius Flaccus. (London: Pickering, 1820).
- Milton, John. Paradise Lost. (London: Pickering, 1835).
- Petrarch, Francesco. Le Rime del Petrarca. (London: G. Pickering, 1822).
- Tasso, Torquato. La Gerusalemme Liberata. (London: G. Pickering, 1822).
- Terentius, Publius. Publius Terentius Afer. (London: G. Pickering, 1823).
- Virgil. Publius Virgilius Maro. (London: Pickering, 1821).
- Walton, Izaak. The Lives of Donne, Wotton, Hooker, Herbert and Sanderson. (London: W. Pickering, 1827).
- Walton, Izaak and Charles Cotton. The Complete Angler. Two Parts. The First by Isaak Walton. The Second by Charles Cotton. (London: William Pickering, 1826).[viii]
We’d like to think that Lewis Carroll would have liked the idea of his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned into a miniature book of a scale the Victorians could only dream of!
Miniature Characters in Children’s Literature
Alice’s changes in size in Lewis Carroll’s celebrated children’s books, especially the instances of her becoming smaller than a puppy, a mouse, or a mushroom, can be explored as part of a longer tradition of miniature characters in children’s literature.
Perhaps the most celebrated and popular example would be the Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). This book was certainly not written for, or addressed to, children. It was rather very much a political satire for adults, with many more episodes than just the voyage to Lilliput, a country of tiny people, or the equally popular episode in Brobdingnag, a country of giants. However, these two episodes were the ones most often reproduced and adapted for children in various editions during the two centuries following the book’s original publication (see, for example, the 1918 edition below, with wonderful illustrations by Maria L. Kirk). Is this because we expect children to be particularly fascinated by scale and the idea of becoming very small, or growing to be gigantic?
The desire to tower over toy-size creatures and observe, help, or boss them around is certainly a recurring motif in children’s literature. This wish is fulfilled in several iconic children’s books, most notably in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) and its four sequels[ix], in which a boy finds little people living under the floor boards, complete with their own miniature library, made up of Victorian miniature books (see above). In T.H. White’s earlier Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), the child protagonist actually finds a group of descendants of the Lilliputians, straight out of Jonathan Swift’s story, in the garden of her derelict family estate. In Roald Dahl’s Billy and the Minpins, a little boy finds the titular tiny men and women in the dark forest beyond his house.
[i] Mary Norton, The Complete Borrowers: The Borrowers ; The Borrowers Afield ; The Borrowers Afloat ; The Borrowers Aloft ; The Borrowers Avenged ; Poor Stainless  (London: Puffin), p. 17.
[ii] Anne C. Bromer and Julian I. Edison, Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures (New York: Abrams, 2007), pp. 11-12.
[iv] Pliny, Natural History, Book VII, Chapter 21. Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D7%3Achapter%3D21
[v] Anne C. Bromer and Julian I. Edison, Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures (New York: Abrams, 2007), p. 114.
[vi] Ibid., p. 50.
[vii] Charlie Lovett, Lewis Carroll among his Books: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Private Library of Charles L. Dodgson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005), p. 160.
[viii] Ibid., pp. 43-4, 73, 78, 95, 156, 160, 211, 236-7, 211, 236-7, 305, 311, 326, 330.
[ix] The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft (1961), The Borrowers Avenged (1982)
Many thanks to Collinge & Clark and to Madoc Books for giving us permission to reproduce images of the same Pickering Diamond Classics editions of Catullus’s Tibullus et Propertius and Virgil’s Publius Virgilius Maro respectively, as the ones Lewis Carroll owned.