“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.
No doubt he was well aware of it, and possibly he was relieved as well. It seems most unlikely that he had the slightest wish to get married, and there was no other way he could get at Alice carnally. Surely he would not at all have wished to do so, indeed would have shrunk from the very idea? In the imagination of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass Alice is wholly inviolate. Although Cohen is the ultimate expert—this is after all his seventh book on Lewis Carroll—he seems oddly myopic about this. In 1891, when he was nearly sixty, Charles wrote to Mrs. Liddell to thank her for arranging that the Duchess of Albany and her children should call on him, taking the opportunity to suggest that two of her own daughters, now grown-up ladies, might like to do the same. “If I were 20 years younger, I should not, I think, be bold enough to give such invitations…but all romantic sentiment has quite died out of my life: so I have become quite hardened as to having lady-visitors of any age.”
Cohen suggests that here we have an old and disappointed suitor looking sadly back on what might have been, but surely the tone of the letter is just the opposite: there is even something a little smug about it, as well as a hint of irony. “Crude as you are, madam, you supposed I was interested in your daughters out of lust, or from the desire to pick one for subsequent marriage, but you were wrong.” Something like that?—although of course infinitely more kid-gloved and refined. And certainly no regrets. Art has done its work; time has taken over; and whatever the mystery of the feelings that he had for small Alice they were not something that continued to gnaw his vitals.
And what about the art? How does it work, and how much does it conceal? Charles Dodgson never took the Alice books seriously, in the sense in which artists, particularly today, tend to measure their own achievements. The story goes, though it is probably apocryphal, that Queen Victoria was non-plussed to be sent a copy of Euclid and His Modern Rivals, after she had graciously requested that the author of Alice send her a copy of his next book. But the author certainly took more pride and satisfaction in it than in his Wonderland books, which were knocked off in a night or two (he wrote them at a standing desk between after-dinner and dawn) to amuse Alice and her sisters when he saw them the following day.
As one would expect in Charle’s case, there were two paradoxes involved. One was the visitation, to a normal man with a quiet, routine, of a burst of artistic creation of the most original kind. Among the welter of Victorian stories for children, which however spirited are always both sentimental and self-conscious, Alice’s adventures are unique. Reading them has an effect similar to reading the beginning of a story by Kafka—The Trial or “The Metamorphosis.” The entry into a new and nightmare world is managed without preparation, with no sense of the narrator’s covert glances at the audience to see how they are taking it. Nor does that audience seem to be one of children. The reader seems as unpersonal and disembodied as the creatures to whom he is introduced in this new world. The suddenness, and the completeness, of the artist’s inspiration has made us all feel like that.
Of course Carroll, as creator, cannot keep it up. Nor, in one way, was it proper or even possible that he should. Once we are in this wholly new world it necessarily becomes as common-place as any other, equally full of absurdity, and so of repetition and boredom. That is as true of Kafka as of Carroll. And yet the other and greater paradox is still present. What produced this world, in which one may become large, or small, with potentially terrifying consequences (Alice nearly breaks her neck from growing so quickly that her head almost hits the roof)? It is a world in which one may find oneself swimming, accompanied by a sardonic mouse, in a pool of one’s own tears; in which survival itself can only take place from moment to moment, even though a joke or an oddity may continually arrive as a distraction. Alice fears she will be punished for crying so much by being drowned in the pool of her tears. “That will be a queer thing to be sure. However, everything is queer to-day.” Unlikely that the mouse can talk, but “at any rate there’s no harm in trying. So she began: ‘O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool? I am very tired of swimming about here, O Mouse!’ (Alice thought this must be the right way of speaking to a mouse: she had never done such a thing before, but she remembered having seen, in her brother’s Latin Grammar, ‘A mouse—of a mouse—to a mouse—O mouse!’).”
As with all inexplicable art, explanations of the ways in which it must have arrived are irresistible to readers and critics, but in Alice’s case they are quite particularly beside the point. Virginia Woolf thought it all arose from a childhood deliberately cut out of his life by the grown man, and making its own sort of comeback. In his uncharacteristically laborious essay “The Child as Swain,” in his critical book Some Versions of Pastoral, William Empson attempted to place Alice in terms of the psychological lore of the Twenties and Thirties, equating, among other things, the pool of tears with the amniotic fluid, the rupture of which heralds the pains of being born. In a lively and useful book, Inventing Wonderland,2 Jackie Wullschläger has now equated “the lives and fantasies” of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and A. A. Milne. She makes a good argument, and is particularly persuasive on the way in which A. A. Milne in Winnie-the-Pooh castrated and made safe what before him could be a hilarious and terrifying nightmare. Yet it is surely a cardinal if, for her argument, an unavoidable error to put Lewis Carroll in with the others. For Carroll, like Kafka, is not only unique but concerned with the phenomena of our general being and consciousness, not with the escape back to childhood, or with the fantasy creation of a parachildhood.
Alice Liddell was the catalyst. Love no doubt often is a catalyst for the artist, particularly the creator who does not expect to create, and who at the time is not aware of being an artist at all. Alice at twenty appears in photographs as sharp, even as grim-featured, with small watchful eyes set close together, a smaller parody of her formidable mother, who was a snob so avid for power in social and university circles that she soon made herself seem ridiculous as well as formidable. There came to be an Oxford jingle in the 1870s:
I am the Dean and this is Mrs. Liddell,
She plays the first, and I the sec- ond fiddle.
She is the Broad; I am the High:
And we are the University.
Such a one, just like the Queens and the Ugly Duchess, Alice inevitably became: the genes saw to that. Charles had not troubled himself to understand what she would become; but he had loved her, and created in her all our own communal alienations and fears, and our common ways of dealing with them. Art has made the conception and the mystery of Alice both unique and universal.
And Morton Cohen has one of his best perceptions about just the way in which this must have happened. He, too, endorses Virginia Woolf’s idea of Charles as a voluntary exile, not only from his home and family but from the whole childhood-to-adult progression. But he makes the point with a difference. If we take up our former example of the artist, that of Kafka, The Trial can be seen as an essay in the art of self-destruction, Alice in Wonderland an essay in the art of survival. What the artist can make of himself is the operative factor in both cases. Cohen puts the matter like this:
The record of his departure from his father’s hearth is seen nowhere better than in the Alice books. These corroborate the difficulties that Charles encountered as he grew up at Daresbury…and they document his rejection of much of what he was tutored to think and believe. True, the books trace the adventures of a young female. But that is an easy disguise…. The physical model for Alice wandering through Wonderland is Alice Liddell; the spiritual and psychological Alice is Charles himself. Alice’s attitudes, her fears, her aggressions, her strengths, her weaknesses, her sharp retorts, her ineptitudes, her confusions, her insensitivities—and, in the end, her determination to survive—they all belong to Charles.
Determination to survive is what most of us find we have when we fall down the rabbit-hole and enter the real world. To turn that world back into the world of art was the miracle achieved in so casual a fashion by the Christ Church mathematics lecturer.
And of course he never achieved it again. As with poets like Hölderlin and Coleridge, the miracle does not happen twice. But because Charles did not know it had happened he had nothing to repine about. He went on writing more or less dull though lively books on mathematical logic, and books not for children but about them for adults. He found new children, like the Terry sisters, daughters of the actress family. A picture of Kate Terry, looking splendid in her stage coat of medieval armor, was obviously admired by him because, like his own photographs of children, it showed “not an atom of shyness.” But his public, who wanted another Alice or nothing, did not, alas, take to Sylvie and Bruno, the odd and certainly unusual novel that he published in 1889, nine years before his death.
It is a very self-conscious work, and it is clear that Charles consciously wanted, in the years after the success of Alice, to become an innovative and a professional novelist. He certainly tried hard. About Alice he had written that “the ‘Why’ of this book cannot and need not be put into words.” About Sylvie and Bruno, on the other hand, now republished in a handsome Mercury House edition, Charles himself would probably have liked a lot of words, and addressed to a new type of audience. He was very much aware of trying to do something quite different, and he observed in his preface to Sylvie and Bruno that “perhaps the hardest thing in all literature…is to write anything original.” How totally unfitted those words would be to Alice, of which he engagingly observed afterward that it had been a task where no reward was hoped for “but a little child’s whispered thanks!” Sylvie and Bruno, the story of two fairy children schemed against by the villainous Warden of “Outland” (might he have borne some relation to the Dean of Christ Church?) with a subplot of adult romance in the English town of Elveston, found no favor with the Alice-reading public, but writers who later happened upon it saw its possibilities, and quietly profited from the lesson in originality it gave. It turned out to be very much a novelist’s novel.
It was a favorite of the young aspirant and friend of Henry James, Hugh Walpole. He often mentions it in his own novels. But much more significantly it was the work of Lewis Carroll to win the closest attention from James Joyce. “Old Dadgerson’s dodges” are referred to in Finnegans Wake, and in Lewis Carroll: The Unforeseen Precursor James Atherton claimed that the modernism of Finnegans Wake was “the logical development…of ideas that first occurred to Lewis Carroll,” cogently adding that Carroll had spent twenty years making sure that “the book which he intended to be his masterpiece was unlike anything else ever written.” But that of course had been just the trouble. It was other writers, and not Charles’s ordinary readers, who saw how to make use of that methodical newness. Scenes and dialogue in the subplot of Sylvie and Bruno recall the early technique of Evelyn Waugh, who much admired the book, and the reader of today may also be incongruously reminded of the novels of another shy but very un-Victorian bachelor—Ronald Firbank.
Perhaps the real trouble with Sylvie and Bruno is that its style is fundamentally unstable, veering from brisk and pungent oddity to pages of flowery and sickly sentiment. After the verses in Alice—“Jabberwocky,” “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” “A Message to the Fish”—the poetry in Sylvie and Bruno is flaccid, lacking in Carrollian logic, or his satiric bite. Pace James Joyce, the whole thing is too wordy. The second part which came out four years later, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, is still wordier, as well as more sentimental, with a fatal desire to teach a gospel of love. In no respect was Charles a more normal and average Victorian than in this tendency to sentimental verbosity. Purists might even claim—I should do so myself—that the second part of Alice, Through the Looking-Glass, has not quite the same mysterious and magic edge as the first.
Charles’s tendency to hang on to a good thing too long is even present in The Hunting of the Snark, popular as that mock-epic turned out to be. Ironically, it is in his occasional writings, the letters, reports, protests, and recommendations which he produced in large numbers in the course of his Oxford academic life, that his style remains as odd and spare, as logical and downright, as it is when he is identifying with one of his own obsessed creations in Alice. Kafka would have appreciated many of these brief pieces, as will anyone conversant with the peculiar madnesses of academic or office life, and of Man in Committee. Compiled by Edward Wakeling and elegantly bound and printed for the Lewis Carroll Society,3 they make excellent reading, and not just for Carroll addicts. Many of them, such as his deadpan reports to the Christ Church wine committee, and a squib entitled “The Blank Cheque,” are almost like the verbal equivalent of a Marx Brothers film. (The committee was gravely informed that their panic over a suspect vintage had nearly caused the wine curator—Carroll himself—to empty his stocks of claret into the famous college fish pool, “thereby certainly demoralising, and probably destroying, its scaly inmates.”)
In 1874 Charles helped to nurse his young cousin and godson, who was seriously ill with tuberculosis. While away from the sickroom and out for a walk, a line of nonsense verse came into his head. “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” The comic invention seems typical of his verbal fancy and that of his fellow Victorians, like Lear, who also wrote such verses. But he seems to have been aware that unconsciousness had produced, for this occasion, something more mysterious and more somber, however facetious it might appear. The nephew died soon after; and he himself set about writing the lengthy and oddly monotonous comic poem which is not so much a quest for death, though it has often been interpreted as something of the sort, as a grotesque celebration of the things we do as death-substitutes, or as pastimes attendant upon the waiting for death. We hunt the Snark for its amusement value, but it may turn out to be a Boojum, in which case we shall “softly and suddenly vanish away.” That was what the poet himself did, aged sixty-five, from a rapid and pain-free attack of pneumonia. It was long before the day of antibiotics, our modern prescription for keeping at least one sort of Boojum at bay.
February 15, 1996
Lewis Carroll: Interviews and Recollections, edited by Morton N. Cohen (University of Iowa Press, 1989). ↩
Jackie Wullschläger, Inventing Wonderland (Free Press, 1996). ↩
Edward Wakeling, editor, The Pamphlets of Lewis Carroll Series, Vol. 1: The Oxford Pamphlets, Leaflets & Circulars of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (University Press of Virginia, 1993). ↩