• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 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 for. Walks round Christ Church Meadows and mathematical classes at Oxford High School; the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace; High Church versus Ritualism; Dickens’s new novel, Holman Hunt’s latest painting (“the most wonderful picture I ever saw”); an appearance by Victoria herself, on a gracious visit to the university (“how short, not to say dumpy, and [with all loyalty be it spoken], how plain she is”); and in the photographs, abundance of stiff silk and glossy hair, footstools and antimacassars, wistful or stern faces frozen in the boredom of the slow exposure.

It is chiefly the earlier letters, when Dodgson was stalking the great with his camera, which offer glimpses of contemporaries. Ruskin was encountered at a Christ Church breakfast, was called upon to advise on illustrations to the books, and eventually persuaded to sit for a likeness. Characteristically (and accurately), he advised Dodgson that he “had not enough talent to make it worth his while to devote much time to sketching”—which Dodgson must have recognized when he gave up the idea of illustrating Alice himself. The Rossettis, introduced by mutual friends and beautifully posed in a scatter of autumn leaves, were delighted by their pictures (their tame wombat, which slept all day in the epergne of the dining room table and ate expensive cigars, may have been the original of the Alice dormouse). Christina was delighted with her copy of his “funny pretty book,” and her own children’s book Speaking Likenesses was a straight steal—“would-be in the Alice style with an eye to the market.” Dodgson was “the type of ‘the University Man,’ ” wrote William Michael; “a certain externalism of polite propriety, verging toward the conventional. I do not think he said in my presence anything ‘funny’ or ‘quaint.’ ” There is no record that, with adults, he ever did.

Tennyson was Dodgson’s biggest lion. In 1857, Tennyson having already been shown some photographs by a mutual friend, he was tracked down to the Lake District where he was on holiday, and gave his promise that he and his two children would sit (Hallam, aged five, and Lionel, three, suggested Dodgson should take them away with him when he left). The poet appeared “a strange, shaggy-looking man: his hair, moustache and beard looked wild and neglected”—a description confirmed by Dodgson’s photograph. They met again several times, and Tennyson was cordial, though Hallam was more struck by Dodgson than his father was. Tennyson confided that often after a day of writing he would dream long passages of poetry. “One was an enormously long one on fairies, where the lines from being very long at first, gradually got shorter and shorter, till it ended with fifty or sixty lines of two syllables each!”—the origin of the Mouse’s “long and sad tale”? Thirteen years later Dodgson and Tennyson had an encounter which reveals the tetchy side of each. Dodgson had a manuscript copy of a poem of Tennyson’s and wrote to ask if he might keep it and show it to friends. “It is useless troubling Mr. Tennyson with a request which will only revive the annoyance he has already had on the subject,” Mrs. Tennyson wrote back coldly. “A gentleman should understand that when an author does not give his works to the public he has his own reasons for it.” Dodgson reacted violently to the dreadful imputation of ungentlemanliness, but an uneasy peace eventually was patched up.

Gradually the celebrities all but disappear from the letters, as more and more the ruling passion of Dodgson’s life becomes their connecting thread. Period hocus-pocus aside, the Carroll letters are in the end disappointing, and the disappointment is the growing sameness of the passion for the company of little girls. Ruling passions are monotonous because they crowd out a whole range of alternatives. What the reader eventually longs for in these letters is the contact of adult minds: ideas, feelings, speculations flowing naturally from Dodgson the adult man. For so busy and sociable a person, he strikingly lacks ordinary adult friends, especially men. The social life is organized round the passion. We meet the donnish clergyman and the single-minded hunter of girls; but trying, from our twentieth-century vantage point, to get the feel of the whole man we come up against absolute impenetrability. The synthesis cannot be made; presumably because Dodgson himself did not make it.

He was a prodigious correspondent, claiming to send about two thousand letters a year. The 1,305 here are only about a third of those extant, the most interesting and representative. Letters to adults may be business notes (mainly Alice business), querulous protests about college matters, or brief and civil communications with the family of seven sisters and three brothers. But they are all matter-of-fact; the fantasy and charm, the guile and courtesy are only breathed onto the page in the letters to little girls—and to the necessary appendages, their mothers.

We can clearly trace the rise and decline of the passion here. Until the middle 1860s (when Dodgson was in his early thirties) the children in his life are the families of friends, such as any kindly bachelor might acquire. There are even some little boys among them, soon to be firmly tabooed. “With little boys I’m out of my element altogether.” When a friend proposed bringing his son to see him, “I wrote to say ‘don’t,’ or words to that effect: and he wrote again that he could hardly believe his eyes when he got my note. He thought I doted on all children.” The great early friendship with the Liddell girls, Alice’s original and her sisters, belongs to this period. In 1865 the first Alice appeared—very early in the Letters—and from then on the book became, so to speak, Dodgson’s license to collect little girls: some spontaneously wrote to the author, many more were acquired by the posting of a copy and a Carrollian letter. Around the end of the Sixties we notice the first of the decorous railway pickups. On the Great Western between Oxford, Didcot, Reading, and Paddington in 1869 alone, for example, he acquired two Marys, two Isabels, and an Emily.

Then in the late Seventies the seaside idylls begin. Up to 1877 Dodgson had usually spent the university summer vacation at “The Chestnuts,” Guildford, with his unmarried sisters, but in that year (he was now forty-five) he first took lodgings at 7 Lushington Road, Eastbourne; and for the next twenty years Lushington Road appears regularly each summer on the letters, apart from a change to other Eastbourne lodgings in the last two years of his life. The beach was fertile ground for the necessary friendships. “It seems that I could, if I liked, make new friends with a new set of nice children every day!” he exults in the Diaries. He becomes something of a connoisseur, both of looks and social class. “I had noticed Helen before as having the most beautiful pair of legs I had ever seen at Eastbourne.” “The children on the beach are not the right sort, yet. They are a vulgar-looking lot! I should think there’s hardly any one here, yet, above the ‘small shopkeeper’ rank.”

The “Mrs. Grundy” period was about to begin. The index (” ‘Grundy, Mrs.,’ see under Dodgson, C.L., social life”) lists twenty-seven entries against her name. When Dodgson began to photograph little girls “undraped” she was much invoked. “I should like to know exactly what is the minimum of dress I may take her in,” he wants to know. “I hope that, at any rate, we may go as far as a pair of bathing-drawers, though for my part I should much prefer doing without them.” More boldly, he hopes “that you will allow me to try some groupings of Ethel and Janet (I fear there is no use naming Ruth as well, at her age, though I should have no objection!) without any drapery or suggestion of it…. I fear you will reply that the one insuperable objection is ‘Mrs. Grundy’—that people will be sure to hear that such pictures have been done, and that they will talk.” Sometimes they did, it seems, talk, though many mothers made no objections. Whether the talk, and Mrs. Grundy, were implicated in Dodgson’s abandonment of photography around 1880 we cannot know. The four pictures in Lewis Carroll, Photographer of Nude Children are all that now remain of the nudes; he kept his promise that he would destroy negatives or leave instructions to his executors to do so. These four have been sentimentally colored and provided with landscape backgrounds by unknown artists; three are unremarkable, one rather sensuously charming. Professor Cohen again edits and provides an accompanying text.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print