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 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.

Mrs. Grundy invisibly presided over the tête-à-têtes that Dodgson was now bold enough to arrange and continued to enjoy for the rest of his life. He was in his fifties (and inclined to stress his advanced age) when he started the custom of having one little girl (“I will not have the two together…. I would as soon think of going to two seaside-places at once, or of smoking two cigars at a time”) to stay at 7 Lushington Road for anything up to a week. Land-ladies provided chaperonage and personal attention; outings, games, and visits filled the days. Then, curiously, mothers seem to have become willing to send even older girls for visits alone. Inviting a young woman of twenty-four whom he had known since she was nine, he describes how he first asked for a child of ten (“lent without the least demur”), next year for one of twelve, the year after for one of fourteen, and then eighteen. Mrs. G. had her hands full: “I doubt if there are many resident Students of Christ Church who have defied her quite so audaciously,” he exults.

In the last years, he seems to grow tired of the obsessive pursuit. The friends are noticeably older, sometimes schoolgirls from his logic class at Oxford High School, sometimes ex-child friends who had stayed in touch with him. Letters to them are sober and gentle, the exquisite concoctions of nonsense for young children no longer much in evidence. Kissing becomes a problem—“are they still kissable?” a frequent query to mothers—and is no straightforward matter: “With girls under fourteen, I don’t think it necessary to ask the question…. When my girl-friends get engaged (as they are always doing) I always decline to go on with the practice, unless the fiancé gives his permission.”

It is one of the attractive aspects of Dodgson’s passion that he clearly retained a genuine and altruistic affection for the few who remained friends into adulthood. Most disappeared from his life for good. “To speak the truth (a course that is often advisable and that has several advantages) the majority (say 60 p.c.) of my child-friends cease to be friends at all after they grow up: about 30 p.c. develop ‘yours affectionately’ into ‘yours truly’: only about 10 p.c. keep up the old relationship unchanged.” We can infer from the way that one new acquisition follows another in the letters that it was he who did the jilting. One ex-child friend remembers her father saying, “This is all very well while it lasts, but a day will come when he will drop you like a hot potato”; and it did. “The child-friends, once so affectionate, become uninteresting acquaintances whom I have no wish to set eyes on again.” But in his latter years Dodgson was obviously grateful for the reassurance offered by young women who still wrote with trust and affection. There is just one letter where he reflects with an unprecedented melancholy and honesty about the emotional climate of his life:

May you treat me as a perfect friend, and write anything you like to me, and ask my advice? Why, of course you may, my child! What else am I good for? But oh, my dear child-friend, you cannot guess how such words sound to me! That any one should look up to me, or think of asking my advice—well, it makes one feel humble, I think, rather than proud—humble to remember, while others think so well of me, what I really am, in myself. “Thou, that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” Well, I won’t talk about myself, it is not a healthy topic. Perhaps it may be true of any two people, that, if one could see the other through and through, love would perish. I don’t know. Anyhow, I like to have the love of my child-friends, though I know I don’t deserve it. Please write as freely as ever you like.

Dodgson was a great inventor of puzzles, tricks, and ciphers. We should not, after all, be surprised that he has outclassed even his contemporaries in defending his central and secret self from us. As the inspired Carroll, he can be pursued down innumerable byways, subjected endlessly to dissection, and still elude. As the contradictory Dodgson—imperturbable roué, retiring and worldly, generous and self-interested, a fabulist and a puritan, an industrious, healthy, just slightly crazy man—he is perhaps beyond our twentieth-century understanding. It is the apparent absence of conflict where we expect to find it that baffles us in the Victorians. Dodgson seems serenely businesslike about arranging to get what he wanted; are we justified in calling him a hypocrite? Is it perhaps just too much of a feat for us to accept the great Victorian divide, the fairies and flagellation, the passion for purity and the 6,000 London brothels? The furiously inturned energy shocks us. Our Freudian armory seems inadequate.

That Dodgson’s deep feeling for girlish fragility and innocence was genuine we can see from his poetry, particularly from an early poem that Professor Cohen includes.

Here at the portal thou dost stand,
And with thy little hand
Thou openest the mysterious gate
Into the future’s undiscovered land….

The child who is the subject of the poem, standing at the entry to dark and dangerous wonderlands, turns somehow, into the poet himself, making the sense uncharacteristically confused. Dodgson’s own fragility must have been satisfied by identification with his girls; at the same time they offered a fatherly role that was celibate. The arrangement, on the whole, was a gain for everyone.

Arrangements have a price, however. Two other personae that appear in the letters are sharply dissociated from the tender, spirited, tactful companion of children. To publishers and illustrators and officials of the college, he shows a petty and old-maidish irascibility. And there was the ultra-puritan, the Grundy within: the habitué of theaters and friend of child actresses who roused much resentment by protesting at the minutest hint of impropriety or blasphemy. He could not, he said, find words to convey the pain he felt on hearing “a bevy of sweet, innocent-looking little girls” sing a chorus from Pinafore. The offending line was “He said ‘Damn me!’ ”

Most seriously, there was the sentimental Dodgson—and the sentimental Carroll. The Alices are never sentimental; they are important to adults as well as children because Carroll allows adult readers the freedom and fantasy of childhood without embarrassing them, just as, by the gravity of his nonsense, he always put children at their ease. But his gift left him very early; the passion grew and the genius faded. As his first feeling for the Liddell sisters coarsened into the routine of acquiring and discarding girls, the spontaneity of Alice gave way to the sentimentality of Sylvie and Bruno.

That he could still command the gravely fantasticated Alice tone we know from the letters to children here. But he could not sustain it in fiction again. In Sylvie and Bruno he ingratiates himself, he chuckles and coos. What child wants to read of “lovely maidens” and “little fellows,” toothsome morsels seen through the adult connoisseur’s eyes? Alice is in the direct voice, demands no condescending, gloating commentary; we hear the author, an absorbed actor, speaking straight to the child listener without self-consciousness. Sylvie and Bruno has lost touch both with the child and with the author’s imaginative resource. It makes great play with the notion of the dream world, but resembles dreams—some kinds of dreams—only in its confusion; while Alice, with its succession of clear images condensing ambiguous meanings, its combination of astonishment and absolute familiarity, draws on our common experience of good dreaming.

Both Alices resonate powerfully to the dream world, capture it as concisely and richly as anything in literature. The transitions and rationalizations of waking life are simply deleted: one place instantly is another place; objects instantly are other objects, or vanish, or spring into existence, or are two things at once, all with entire matter-of-factness. Movement follows dream rules: you set out in one direction to arrive in another, or run to stay on the same spot. Voices speak out of the air; thoughts are as comprehensible as speech. Words and meanings combine, fuse, explode.

The dream world is arbitrary, certain of its own reality, uncompromising toward visitants; nightmare is very close, but can be prevented. Alice is the cool head and equable temper that tames chaos. She is no “lovely maiden” or connoisseur’s morsel; the younger Carroll was able to dig beyond sentimentality and obsession to embody, in Alice, all that had made up his own sanity—tenacity, decency, the perception that bugbears yield to ridicule. The vagaries of the imagination can be submitted to—one may fall, float, shrink, swell, be lost and found, be threatened with death and crowned as monarch—and yet survive. Always threatening is the possibility that Alice may be abolished or metamorphosed like the dream objects around her; but it is triumphantly averted. He had found the honest and innocent child in himself.

Alice’s dreams, like the prince’s travels in Rasselas, are the trials that sanity encounters in its contest with the flux of imagination. In Wonderland these are the more obvious threats of madness (“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad,” says the Cheshire-Cat) and of direct attack (“Off with her head!”); its resolution is a trial of strength between Alice and unreason, in which she fights the idea of being sentenced before the verdict is known, and wins.

Through the Looking-Glass is less boisterous, the theme a game and not a trial, and goes deeper into the ambiguities of space, time, and object permanence. Reversibility, as in the mirror-image or logical operation, is a persistent theme: the ruminations on time of the Mad Hatter’s tea party are developed into ideas of reversible time—remembering the future, explaining unwritten poems, crying before pain is inflicted; like the writing of “Jabberwocky,” Humpty Dumpty is a reversible figure, bisected by his belt (or cravat), and Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the two messengers (“one to come, and one to go”). Language is reversible, and can mean its opposite. Yet it is a tool of sanity as well: “Can you keep from crying by considering things?” Alice asks, and “That’s how it’s done,” the White Queen replies decisively; imperturbably upside-down in a ditch, the White Knight says his “mind goes on working all the same. In fact, the more head-downwards I am, the more I keep inventing things.” And in Through the Looking-Glass the dreams themselves are reversible. Does Alice dream the Red King or does he dream her? Sanity manages to survive the question.

“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!”

…”I know they’re talking nonsense,” Alice thought to herself: “and it’s foolish to cry about it.” So she brushed away her tears, and went on, as cheerfully as she could. “At any rate I’d better be getting out of the wood, for really it’s coming on very dark.”

Is the Carroll fuss justified or not, after all? On the basis of these letters, no. But the Alice world is somewhere at the center of the diaries and letters which surround it like some sort of misty penumbra that obscures even while it emanates from the books. Dodgson himself was perhaps as puzzled by Carroll as we are: “the hardest thing in all literature—at least I have found it so: by no voluntary effort can I accomplish it: I have to take it as it comes—is to write anything original.”

The Alice period was over by the time most of these letters were written. The Alices had been flukes: calculations that worked out, a sum with an answer that satisfied him. They were complete, and when he had finished them Carroll was left with only the fussy routines of his passion. To him his inspirations had been “specimens of that hopelessly illogical phenomenon, ‘an effect without a cause.’ ” Causes galore can be ascribed to them, as to dreams; like dreams, like their author, they can keep secrets, and a quality that refuses to be finally unriddled; independent of mystique and fashion and literary pother.

This Issue

August 16, 1979