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Alice, or The Art of Survival

Lewis Carroll: A Biography

by Morton N. Cohen
Knopf, 577 pp., $35.00

The Complete Sylvie and Bruno

by Lewis Carroll, iillustrated by Renée Flower
Mercury House, 394 pp., $30.00

His face presented the peculiarity of having two very different profiles; the shape of the eyes and the corners of the mouth did not tally. He sometimes hesitated in his speech (your true raconteur’s trick this, is it not?) and I fancied he would often deliberately use it to heighten expectancy by delaying the point of his stories. How many he told, and how well he told them!”

The Reverend C.L. Dodgson, whose invented pen name was Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, was certainly a man with two profiles, if not more. The reminiscences of those who knew him, neatly assembled and edited by his biographer,1 give a more vivid and contradictory impression of him than a modern biographical analysis can manage to do. Take the question of that stammer. Some who knew him, like Mrs. Shute, the wife of one of his colleagues at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of the above passage, maintain that it was no more than an effective device for telling stories, a tic that its owner made adroit use of. Others, like the Bishop of Oxford in Dodgson’s time, insist that it was a serious and embarrassing handicap which prevented its devout owner from proceeding to full orders and becoming a priest. He escaped conducting services if at all possible, although he would preach sermons, over which he took immense pains, “avoiding the words which tripped him up in speech.” And with these sermons he always “held his audience.”

The Bishop, who called his recollections of Lewis Carroll at Oxford “stories true and false,” professed to be in no doubt about the reasons for his liking little girls. “They were in a true sense part of his ‘work.”’ A charitable ecclesiastic of the time might have made the same sort of comment about Mr. Gladstone’s enthusiasm for prostitutes. Both profiles offer the same paradox: in Carroll’s case, as in Gladstone’s and in that of many other Victorians, “work” and pleasure may well have gone together. One fact too often attested to but nevertheless in doubt is that Lewis Carroll, or the Reverend C.L. Dodgson, never stammered at all when he talked to little girls.

Big girls, like Mrs. Shute, he could be fond of, too. He took her for immense walks round about Oxford, standing with face averted as she crossed a stile, but extending a hand to help her over. (“In those days a woman had skirts and feet—no legs; and L. C. was the pink of propriety.”) He “confessed” (she was writing her recollections in 1932) that he had no interest in boys, or grown-up females, as models—“having the ‘bad taste,”’ as he told her, “to find more beauty in the undeveloped than the mature form.” He drew very badly, but since she was an artist, with a studio, she was of great help to him, not least in finding good models—“I was always delighted when I got hold of a child to suit him” (twelve years old was the preferred age). It is, incidentally, a social point of the period of some interest that Mrs. Shute, as a married lady, was perfectly entitled to take solitary walks with Carroll: had she been unmarried, or under age, it could never have happened.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was the eldest son of the eleven children of the Perpetual Curate of Daresbury, in Cheshire. The clerical title has itself something Alice-like about it, coming as it does from Cheshire Cat country, the land of the slowly disappearing feline. (Charles also had both an uncle and a brother called Skeffington, a real Walrus and Carpenter name.) He was sent to Rugby, a tough, no-nonsense boarding school, and endured it without complaint. Though the school now takes girls as well as boys it was very definitely single-sex in Victorian times, and often alleged to be a hotbed of homosexuality. Did Charles’s dislike of little males, with their savage bullying ways, originate from this period? It is of course possible, as I know from personal experience, to go through an English public school without discovering that such a thing as homosexuality exists, but in those days that would have been exceptional: the chances are that the author of Alice knew all about all sorts of sex from an early age, and that those small Freudian sirens to whom he was partial held no secrets from him later on. He adored their ruthless innocence, but was probably not hoodwinked by it. And yet who knows? Compared with ourselves the Victorians had wonderful powers of compartmentalizing their responses; and it was no doubt second nature to Charles to present two different profiles, in which sex could assume virtually the same expression as pastoral devotion.

A good, if not brilliant, mathematician, he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, and readily obtained a permanent studentship, an achievement made all the simpler in those easy-going days by the fact that his father had also been a Christ Church student, before departing to take up the care of a parish. From then on the pattern of the young man’s life was determined. He worked a long and studious day, less involved in teaching the young men than in his own researches, pastoral care, and college business. He dined in hall—the college turtle (not “mock-turtle”) soup was famous—he saw a few friends. In the afternoons he walked. And always little girls and their mothers would come up to visit him in his rooms, where the photographic apparatus was permanently ready and to hand.

Morton Cohen is a thorough and in many ways perceptive biographer. An instance of his thoroughness is that he has found out exactly what were the photographic methods employed by Charles (as it seems most convenient to refer to Dodgson, following his biographer’s example, although we should remember that Dodgson himself, like most of his contemporaries, would have been deeply affronted if anyone outside his family had presumed to address him by his first name). Photographic techniques were slow, and his models, usually in a picturesque state of undress as beggarmaids or little gypsies, must have shown a remarkable degree of patience and self-control. All seem to have been little actresses in the making, and they peer slyly out from the clear and sober print like those sophisticated sylphs and nymphets whom Balthus loves to paint today. Their nannies and mothers, waiting with an equal patience, seem to have noticed nothing odd in what was going on, though one wonders if they sometimes longed to be photographed themselves—did they resent the artist’s total neglect of them? All the more, perhaps, because there was a strong narcissistic vein in Charles. He liked to pose himself, instructing the girls how to remove the cap for a long exposure. In these pictures he can look strangely like one of his own girl subjects, with the same kind of sly and becomingly calculated shyness.

If the women who attended on his models saw nothing odd about it, there was in a very real sense nothing odd about Carroll himself (or Dodgson, or Charles). His piety was genuine, and well attested by his writings as well as by his own practices; his humor and the careful attention he gave to humdrum college business was that of any other don. Himself an abstemious man, he took immense pains over the cellar’s contents when appointed curator and college wine steward. When he traveled on a single adventurous occasion and accompanied by a colleague called Liddon through Europe and into Russia, reaching as far as Nijni Novgorod, his letter and diary comments on the voyage are like nothing so much as that comic saga of the conventional British traveler Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The Reverend Dodgson was a man of his time in the most ordinary and unremarkable of ways.

Yet of course he was not only an artist and a genius but a very odd fellow indeed, although none of his friends seems to have remarked on the fact, even after the two Alice books came out. And although his relations with the three daughters of Dean Liddell of Christ Church (Alice was the middle one) could not have been more proper, and indeed more conventionally “sentimental” by the standards of the behavior of adults toward children at the time, there was clearly some strange affinity, some secret bond, between himself and Alice. Perhaps in time Mrs. Liddell, a forthright and dominating woman, came to notice it. Her husband the Dean would hardly have done so: he was far too occupied with college affairs and with the progress of his magisterial Greek lexicon.

Cohen’s account of the veiled events that followed gives an instance of our biographer’s powers of perception, and induction. A marked coolness certainly developed between Mrs. Liddell and Charles, though if anything more definite occurred it was suppressed or unrecorded. Alice was, after all, only twenty years younger than Charles, and it was commonplace for Victorian men not only to marry girls much younger than themselves but to brood over them, as it were, until they came of an age suited to the married state. Edgar Allan Poe was himself a quite normal instance of the sort of thing involved. Charles’s own younger brother fell in love with a fourteen-year-old also coincidentally called Alice, and had to be cautioned by his elder brother from at once declaring his passion to her parents, and asking for her hand. This incident, withheld by the caretakers of Charles’s papers, is rightly taken by Cohen to be an indication of what might have occurred in some form between Charles himself and the Liddell family. Did he recommend prudence to his brother because of an experience that he himself may have had in connection with the rapidly maturing Alice?

Brother Wilfred went on to marry his own Alice six years after receiving the advice, and so far as is known they were perfectly happy. She was grown up, and by then he had more money. Charles did record dining twice with his Uncle Skeffington, who had always been something of a mentor to him, and talking “about Wilfred and about A.L. It is a very anxious subject.” A.L. is certainly his own Alice, but what precisely had caused the anxiety? It is a sobering thought that Alice and Lewis Carroll might in the course of time have wed, had offspring, lived the humdrum life of a married couple. Could the magic of the Alice books have survived, in the eyes of their readers, that sort of real ending?

Whatever the impact on art of such an outcome, there was, thank goodness, no likelihood of its taking place, either in the looking-glass world or in the real one. Mrs. Liddell saw to that. And Alice herself may have disclosed a probable reason when she told her own son, years later, that Charles Dodgson had not been considered much of a catch by her family; or, by implication, by herself. “Nobody then expected that this shy…tutor…would in years to come be known all over the civilized world.” That slightly de haut en bas comment unintentionally reveals a good deal. There was an honest brutality about the social and financial attitudes of the Victorians, and the cloistered young tutor (he was not much more than thirty) had no solid future before him. His salary would never increase. As a matrimonial prospect Charles did not come up to snuff.

  1. 1

    Lewis Carroll: Interviews and Recollections, edited by Morton N. Cohen (University of Iowa Press, 1989).

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