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Carroll Through the Pillar-Box

ISSUE:  Summer 1980
The Letters of Lewis Carroll. Edited by Morton N. Cohen, with the assistance of Roger Lancelyn Green. 2 vols. Oxford. $60.00.

The thriving market in Lewis Carroll studies has for years been overhung by the knowledge that a major edition of the letters was in preparation at the hands of two leading authorities in the field; an enterprise the more necessary, in that the specimens published by Collingwood, in his Life and Letters (1898), and by Evelyn M. Hatch, in her Letters to Child-Friends (1933), give only a limited idea of the material that survives. The promised work has now made its appearance, and it is a pleasure to record at once that it fulfills every expectation that could possibly have been entertained of it. These two massive volumes, the fruit of 20 years’ labor, are an honor to American literary scholarship, as well as being an absolute paradigm of how such things should be done. A mere glance at the list of recipients, the sources and acknowledgments, and the splendid 70-page General Index (by Regina Domeraski and Anita Gandolfo), will convey a vivid, though imperfect, conception of the tremendous task involved and the meticulous care and elegance with which it has been carried out. The numerous drawings and photographs, many of them unfamiliar, have also been most discerningly chosen, not as mere idle embellishments, but with a precise sense of their relevance to the accompanying text.

Carroll was, throughout life, an obsessive letter-writer. From his own logbooks it can be estimated that, over a 50-year period, he wrote about 100,000 of them: 2,000 a year, and on average about six a day, to hundreds of correspondents. Despite this output, he was often far in arrears, with a waiting list of 80 or 90, and a delay-time in answering of as much as four or five years. Of this huge accumulation a fair proportion survives. Apart from professional exchanges with his publishers and illustrators (which may yet be issued separately), some 7,000 general-interest letters have been recovered by Professor Cohen and Mr. Green from libraries and private owners all over the world. Fourteen hundred or so, many hitherto unknown, are printed here, and between them they give by far the fullest and most lively account that we have of Carroll’s day-to-day existence, the temper of his mind, the range of his interests, and the circle in which his unassuming but extremely busy life was led.

This circle was essentially middle-class. Apart from the slightly incongruous friendships with Lord and Lady Salisbury, the Duchess of Albany, and the one or two titled under-graduates who came his way in Christ Church, Carroll seems to have had almost no familiar contacts with the English aristocracy. In this—as in so much else—he differs from his contemporary, Edward Lear, who numbered almost a dozen members of the peerage among his closest friends. But then Lear was a painter in need of patrons and in any case something of a public entertainer, whereas Carroll’s shyness effectively confined his performances to juvenile audiences alone. Notoriously, too, he shunned the role of literary lion and had few connections with the world of professional authors, centred on London. Tennyson he knew slightly and Ruskin and Coventry Patmore and Charlotte Yonge and George Macdonald and the Rossettis; also a number of theatrical people, notably the Terrys, but one cannot imagine him rubbing shoulders with Thackeray and Trollope at the Garrick or taking tea with George Eliot or lunching at No. 2, The Pines. In that environment he was an unknown amateur, an outsider and not a pro.

Carroll’s artistic interests, and his need to find book illustrators, did put him into marginal touch with Pre-Raphaelite and other painters; it is a bizarre circumstance, revealed in these letters, that at one moment he nearly got W. S. Gilbert as an illustrator for Through the Looking-Glass and at another approached Arthur Sullivan to compose a musical setting of Alice. But although his literary and artistic ties were thus a good deal wider than those of most Oxford dons (apart from public figures like Pater and Jowett), this was really not his world, and so far as he did enter it, it was far more likely to be as a photographer than as a man of letters. As the great bulk of his correspondence shows, his real friendships were not with public people, nor even, to any great extent, with academic or clerical colleagues. He certainly had his cronies in the Christ Church commonroom, and elsewhere in the university (Vere Bayne and Liddon are examples), though for obvious reasons they do not figure largely as correspondents. But even when this is allowed for, it is still quite plain that the majority of his human contacts, outside his own family, were with children, and their parents—usually the mothers—and if not that, with ex-children, namely the former child-friends who had grown up and married or made careers without—as generally happened—getting struck off his list. One thing most notably absent from his letter-writing is a lifelong relationship with anyone of his own age. The juvenile friendships came and went and were typically quite casual in origin, based on chance encounters in trains or at the seaside; and the result was to link him with an enormous number of perfectly ordinary middle-class families up and down the country, whom he wrote to and visited, and who came to see him whenever they passed through Oxford. Their class-uniformity was due to Carroll’s own preference for well-spoken, nicely brought-up little girls; the only lower-middle or working-class children he cultivated were those on the stage.

The outcome is this immense volume of correspondence with relatively obscure, though highly respectable people, who made no special noise in the world but lived and died and married and had offspring of much the same type as themselves: lawyers and doctors and parsons and school-teachers and military or naval officers and their wives—the salt of the earth and the backbone of the country, but not people who ordinarily get into works of reference, let alone history books, and whose annals are apt to be as short and simple, if not quite so rustic, as those of the departed villagers commemorated by Thomas Gray.

Not the least extraordinary feature of Professor Cohen’s editorial achievement is the diligence and success with which he has tracked down virtually every member of these long-forgotten families whose name is so much as mentioned by Carroll. He has found out their dates and whom they married and what became of them and their descendants, and how he has managed all this at a distance of more than a century it is difficult even to imagine. The patience of an oyster is here combined with the zeal of an FBI filing clerk and the dedicated accuracy of a papyriologist. Feat after feat of dazzling detective work is demurely embalmed in the footnotes, and month after month of grinding labor must have been needed to uncover these facts and to fit them together into the stupendous mosaic of personal particulars they provide.

There will be critics—there always are critics—to say that such meticulous detail is of too little intrinsic interest to justify the trouble it costs in amassing it. But in this case, at least, they are entirely in the wrong. What we see here is a whole small world, of a kind that historians know almost nothing of, and which only Trollope, in some of his lesser novels, has really been interested in describing: the mid-Victorian bourgeois world of people who took their holidays at Eastbourne, where Carroll picked up their children on the beach, ingratiated himself with the parents, and acquired the status of a welcome and often—at a later stage—an extremely helpful family friend. We see him going to endless trouble to find jobs for the daughters as they grew up or to advise them on the difficult business of making a ladylike career. And in the primary phase, before the girls reach their teens, he is a constant source of gifts, of jokes and puzzles, of expeditions to the theatre, the pantomime, or the pier sideshows, and of visits to artists’ studios and the London galleries. His practice of “borrowing” a child for an afternoon—only one at a time if he could manage it—and giving it a memorable day out is repeated again and again, in Eastbourne, London, and Oxford. Many of the letters concern arrangements for these trips and illustrate his exact attention to train-timings and other matters of detail. In later life he would often have children to stay with him in his digs at Eastbourne, always with great concern for the proprieties and for the child’s and the parents’ willingness to comply with this unusual routine.

Photography, of course, often came into it, though this was normally confined to his improvised studio in Christ Church, where the complicated apparatus was ordinarily kept. The photographic sitting becomes the excuse for scraping acquaintance with the child, for a subsequent visit, for dressing up, and—in certain rare but now notorious instances—for persuading it to disrobe entirely. The patience with which Carroll cultivated the confidence of the mothers and his anxiety to avoid all sense of shame on the child’s part are alike astonishing. Once he is fairly sure that his proposals will not be rebuffed out of hand, he is endlessly persistent in pursuit of his aim, which obviously represents a kind of consummation of the whole process. Though occasionally a little creepy and obsessional, there is really nothing very salacious about these feats of voyeurism. Everything was above board; the family received copies of the photographs; and if one or two of these had not survived, we should now have no specimens to go by, since all others were destroyed, either by Carroll himself or on instructions to his executors, after his death.

On the evidence of the letters, there is no reason to question Carroll’s sincerity in this matter. His interest is plainly aesthetic, quite as much as it is, or may have been, sexual, and on these grounds he was able to inveigle Miss Thomson, the last of his illustrators, into aiding and abetting him. Her own forte was for the all-too-sugary drawings of naked children, disguised as fairies, which provide a somewhat irrelevant accompaniment to the posthumous Three Sunsets. And nobody seems yet to have suggested that she was animated by any dark designs in the business. As everyone knows, the naked female infant was in any case an absolutely commonplace Victorian symbol for innocence and purity, and this, in his conscious mind at least, was obviously how Carroll looked at it as well. In earlier years he was, of course, well aware that “Mrs. Grundy” might think otherwise, and he took precautions that were perfectly sensible, in view of the academic respectability of his position. Later on, as he grew older and had severed his connection with college teaching, he became more contemptuous of public opinion. But perhaps some unrecorded incident alarmed him to the point of abandoning his hobby; or maybe, as has also been suggested, the introduction of dryplate photography simply rendered it less interesting and worthwhile. It is notable, at all events, that in his sixties he took, instead, to inviting quite grown-up young ladies to tête-à-tête dinners in his Oxford rooms. By then he must have felt that his age protected him from scandal and the suspicion of dishonorable intentions. As a younger man, his position, like that of all Oxford dons other than heads of colleges, had been awkward and dangerous; Oxford was a male-oriented and celibate community in which cultivation of the society of marriageable females inevitably spelt marriage and a retirement from academic life into the rural seclusion of a country parsonage. Carroll, himself a child of the system, knew well enough that he was not cut out for the role of clerical paterfamilias; his stammering problem alone would have precluded it; yet he clearly had a strong taste for feminine company and none whatever for that of young men or boys. His solution, odd though it may seem, was actually quite logical and practical: go in for girls too young to be considered sex objects; disentangle yourself as soon as they become old enough to arouse comment; and retain thereby the status and perquisites of a college tutor, along with the respectable bachelorhood which was its necessary condition.

Lear, with his epilepsy and homosexual leanings, had a different, though analogous problem, to which he never found half so neat a solution. He contemplated marriage, but his nerve always failed him in the clutch, and he remained throughout life an unhappy grumbler, dogged by a sense of failed ambitions as a painter. Carroll, just as busy and hard-working, was a far more equable and well-adjusted personality, troubled, it is true, by conventional qualms about sin and inadequacy, but nowhere found complaining of his lot or depressed by his own comparative failure as a creative mathematician. The cultivation of his friendships and the care of his relations were the main interests of his life, and the immense amount of time he spent in letter-writing is sufficient evidence of the value he attached to these concerns. Letter-writing, for him, was not primarily a matter of exchanging information or opinions with his intellectual peers. Though he did this, too, on occasion, there are not many examples of such correspondence in the present collection; the series of letters to an unknown invalid, on religious difficulties, is about the only exception. Instead, we get the small-talk and jokes and petty arrangements of everyday life, infinitely commonplace and boring if it were not for the constant play of humorous exaggeration, teasing, leg-pulling, and whimsical invention, which Carroll employed to keep his young correspondents (and even his older ones) amused. Though he may reproach them at times, there is hardly a cross or severe or condescending utterance in any of these letters. They are cheerful and spontaneous throughout, with almost no repetition; and hence, though there is little in them of any profundity or significance, they are singularly charming and readable.

This is more than can be said of the Diaries (published 25 ago), in which much of the same ground is covered, but in an altogether drier and more factual manner. The letters, by contrast, are designed to please, and in them, as nowhere else, lies the evidence of what enjoyable company Carroll must have been for the Victorian maidens who were lucky enough to make his acquaintance and of the spell that he was so regularly able to cast upon them. Since there was obviously no thought here of writing for public consumption, and still less for posterity, there emerges also an unwitting and undoctored self-portrait of Carroll as he really was: a kind, courteous, fussy, modest, conscientious, and humorous man, who actually achieved his aim of making the world a happier place than he found it and had therefore no reason to be dissatisfied with an existence which, if not marked by deep or passionate relationships, was itself a happy and full one. What Professor Cohen has done is to enable us to see this in detail, and at first hand, as we never have before; and for this, Carrollians the world over will owe him an enduring debt of admiration and gratitude. Their one regret must be that his researches have yielded so little new information on Alice, the best-known, best-loved child-friend of them all. But that is no fault of Professor Cohen’s; if there was anything to be found, he would surely have found it, and we know who to blame for his failure. Carroll’s letters to Alice perished in the Deanery fireplace at Christ Church; and the person who put them there, to our lasting loss, was that stupid, suspicious old she-dragon, Mrs. Liddell.


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