Dodgson’s Passion

The Letters of Lewis Carroll Vol. I: 1837-1885 Vol. II: 1886-1898

edited by Morton N. Cohen, with the assistance of Roger Lancelyn Green
Oxford University Press, 1,244 pp., $60.00, boxed set

Lewis Carroll, Photographer of Children: Four Nude Studies

by Morton N. Cohen
Clarkson Potter, 32 pp., $10.00

Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll; drawing by David Levine

Lewis Carroll is one of the writers who evoke a special kind of fuss—pedantic, nostalgic, ingrown. The first sentence of editor Morton N. Cohen’s acknowledgments sets the tone: “Almost two decades have passed since, on a golden summer afternoon, Roger Lancelyn Green proposed, over cups of tea in the garden of his Cheshire home, that the two of us collect and edit Lewis Carroll’s letters for publication.” The golden summer afternoon, as everyone must know, is a reference to a journey by rowing boat from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to Godstow Lock—

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide—

during which Alice was conceived from tales told to the three children of Dean Liddell of Christ Church (the Meteorological Office in fact shows that it was “cool and rather wet” in Oxford on the day of the excursion). The golden glow is maintained through Professor Cohen’s account of his treasure hunt for material, visiting, it seems, dear old rural ladies who took letters “to have them copied by machines not readily available in villages and hamlets,” or who sat down to “trace words barely legible because of Dodgson’s ever-fading purple ink”; who turned out old trunks, “hunted in family bibles, went through packets of loveletters, raked over cellars and rummaged in attics.”

Tea in the garden, love letters in attics, faded violet ink: the editorial scenesetting is in period, but the standard of editing is modern and extravagantly good. The twenty years’ labor was supported by money from six prestigious American endowments. Fifty-eight librarians, curators, archivists, and keepers receive acknowledgment, and there is another couple of pages of names of guides and advisers. The edition has a chronology, family tree, and bibliography (fortunately selective), and there are biographical notes, which must have involved much toil, for almost every recipient. The books are illustrated by a satisfactory collection of Carroll’s sketches and epistolary jokes, by facsimiles, book illustrations, and of course photographs both by and of him (though one of the best, the stunning picture of the four Liddell children, is absent). The list of owners of letters includes the British Museum, Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Bodleian Library, Fitzwilliam Museum, Lambeth Palace, Victoria and Albert Museum, and many, many others. If these were the letters of a novelist, philosopher, or poet of world stature they could not be more ceremoniously and impeccably presented—indeed there are writers of world stature who have never been paid the compliment of an edition like this.

But Carroll is, when all is said and done, the author of a couple of classic children’s books. A generous edition of the letters could, however, be valuable in any case as the mine of psychological and social interest that his diaries disappointingly are not. And indeed, readers with a taste for the aroma of high Victoriana, especially Oxford Victoriana, are very well catered…

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