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A Ceremony of Carrolls

ISSUE:  Summer 1977
Lewis Carroll and his World. By John Pudney. Scribner’s. $8.95. Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking-Glass. By Jean Gatte’gno (Translated by Rosemary Sheed). Crowell. $8.95.The Rectory Magazine. Edited by Lewis Carroll (with an Introduction by Jerome Bump). Texas. $7.50.
Lewis Carroll Observed. Edited by Edward Guiliano. Clarkson N. Potter/Crown. $12.95.The Raven and the Writing-Desk. By Francis Huxley. Harper & Row. $8.95.

FIVE books in as many months on Lewis Carroll are proof enough, if proof were needed, of his undiminishing popularity. No English writer of his time, with the possible exception of Dickens, is better known, or more often quoted, or more eagerly sought after by collectors; none has travelled more extensively, by way of translation, into the literature of other countries; and none, it seems, is more highly regarded by the contemporary young. Yet, when everything is said, the basis of this universal fame remains extraordinarily narrow. The two little Alice books are master-pieces, no doubt, of their unpretending kind, and the (now centenarian) Snark the only successful epic in English since Paradise Lost; but what else of Carroll’s voluminous, if scattered, output is now much read, or can even claim to be unjustly neglected? . The light verse of Rhyme? and Reason? is at best no better than that of such half-forgotten contemporaries as Gilbert, Calverley, and Praed; the puzzles and pamphlets, like the logical and mathematical writings, have escaped oblivion only by accident, as it were, and the diligence of editors; while the Diaries and Russian Journal turned out, when at length they did achieve publication, to be works of mediocre quality, which tell us much about very little, and next to nothing of his interior life.Sylvie and Bruno, his last work of fiction, and by far his longest, is an unhappy marriage of fairy fantasy with the Victorian novel of manners, neither very readable, and redeemed only by its loony academics, a handful of paradoxes, and some, but not all, of its verse. The only other writings, in fact, which display Carroll in anything like top form are his letters to child correspondents, and these have never yet been published in full. Professor Morton Cohen’s edition, when it arrives, may therefore compel a major reassessment; till then, however, Carroll must remain in the peculiar position of an unknown author who hit the jackpot three times running, and then relapsed for some reason, not into silence, certainly, but at least into comparative feebleness and triviality for the rest of his writing career.

Nevertheless, he continues to fascinate, and not least in the details of his odd personality and singularly uneventful life. Thanks to Collingwood, Derek Hudson, and R. L. Green’s edition of the Diaries, these details are well established; but biographers continue to proliferate. John Pudney’s Lewis Carroll and his World is a good example of the genre, the work of a seasoned professional author, commissioned (presumably) by his publishers to fill out a gap in a popular series. As such, it is capably done, though its reliance on secondary sources precludes much addition to existing knowledge. Mr. Pudney tells a plain and untangled tale, with just enough in the way of side-glances to cover the hobbies, interests, and social contacts with which Carroll busied so much of his time. There is no sentimentalizing, and none of that itch for speculative interpretation which afflicts all too many commentators: none of that earnest psychoanalyzing into the Carrollian sex life, no vain proofs of his self-identification with the fictional “Alice,” and no groundless attempts to correlate episodes or characters in the books with real-life events and personages. Mr. Pudney is no admirer of Sylvie and Bruno, nor does he conceal his distaste for Carroll’s snobbishness and apparent indifference to labor-conditions among children of the working class. This is not quite fair, perhaps, since, except in such matters as trains, gadgets, and photography, there was nothing in Victorian Oxford to confront a retiring mathematician with the full horrors of industrialism. In the one area that he did know something about, namely the employment of children on the stage, Carroll admittedly defended the practice as a useful source of income; but he also made efforts to see that working conditions were good, and the infant phenomena of the period suitably protected from corruption. Such trifles apart, Mr. Pudney does justice to his subject; well-written and handsomely produced, with a wealth of not always familiar illustrations, his book would make an admirable starting-point for anyone hooked on Carroll, but not yet au fait with the large literature about him.

Professor Gattégno is a leading French authority, whose Lewis Carroll, Une Vie, published in 1974, appears here in what the publishers, with unintended accuracy, describe as an “intuitive” (though readable) translation by Rosemary Sheed. Lewis Carroll, Fragments of a Looking-Glass is unconventionally articulated, not as a chronicle, but into 37 short essays on different aspects of Carroll’s life and personality. Its alphabetical arrangement—from “Alice” to “Zeno”—gives this book the (fortunately misleading) air of being a work of reference, and must have been something of a trial to its translator; some deft retitling has contrived, however, to keep the original sequence more or less intact. Professor Gatte’gno knows the background thoroughly, his occasional seeming errors being often due to the translator, and his vignettes of Carroll as mathematician, anti-vivisector, theatergoer, and man of religion are particularly well worth reading. Almost alone among non-native biographers, he can also be relied on to know that Christ Church, though a college, is not so called, and that its Students, so-called, are Fellows and not undergraduates. The one important (unimportant?) topic which M. Gattégno treats with more Gallic enthusiasm than scholarly sobriety is the ever-vexed issue of sex. Under various headings (“Alice,” “Celibacy,” “Girl-Friendships,” “Papa and Mama,” “Prudery,” and “Sexuality”), he argues, not unpersuasively, that Carroll’s preoccupation with little girls was in large part definitely sexual; but he then falls into psychological theorizing which does not fit the case and is mostly unnecessary anyway. Just as it will not do to cast Dodgson’s perfectly amiable parents in the roles of such alarming maternal battleaxes as the Queen of Hearts, Red Queen, and Duchess, or those feebly benevolent father-figures, the King of Hearts, White King, and White Knight, so it is equally unreasonable to forget the influence (unknown to Europeans) of nannies and governesses on the Victorian domestic scene. Young Dodgson, in any event, had nothing but sisters until he was five years old; his experiences at Rugby, and earlier, had left him with a lasting aversion to boys; while his life of “celibacy,” though doubtless a natural (and not uncommon) preference, was also rendered largely inevitable by his situation at Oxford. As with many another Victorian don, the decision to marry would have forced him to exchange the comforts of commonroom life for an ill-paid college living, which his disinclination for priest’s orders, love of the theater, and inaptitude for preaching or pastoral duties would have made entirely uncongenial to him. The whole 19th-century Oxford system might have been designed expressly to retain celibates and to fill the vicarages of England, as it did, with frustrated, if uxorious, mathematieians and classical scholars. Given its workings, there was nothing unusual about Carroll’s choice of life-style, and not all that much about his sexual interests, if such they were. After all, what other tolerated options were by then open to him? It is odd, by the way, that Gattegno, who has edited Sylvie and Bruno, should fail to mention that “Uggug,” the repulsive small boy with doting parents (to whom he devotes a section), is an obvious derivative from a similar character called “Guggy” in “Crundle Castle,” an early story reprinted as an Appendix to the Diaries, where the connection is duly noted. So much for the idea that “Uggug” is a virility symbol; he was far more likely just an unpleasant boy in the neighborhood of Croft Rectory, whom the young Dodgsons disliked.

“Crundle Castle” is in fact one of the better items in The Rectory Magazine of 1850, just issued for the first time in facsimile by the University of Texas at Austin, where the manuscript now lies. Young Dodgson was editor and chief author of several such exercises in home journalism, and this is technically the first. The contents, though not worth much in themselves, are of interest in showing off the teen-age Dodgson’s early-developed talent for parody and word-play, his attentive ear for the cadences of brainless adult conversation, his capacity for discoursing lightly on nothing in particular, and a still-evolving sense of the uses of anticlimax for comic effect. Here are some smart but suggestive answers to imaginary correspondents:

“F. F. What a stupid you are I
M. F. Chichester or Norfolk. We forget which.
M. B. We think not, at least as far as regards snails and
Q. G. Bird lime is best.
L. B. Try for yourself. Surely you’ve got a spoon?

F. L. W. You may go on as long as you please, for
anything we care.”

The temptation to construct questions for such answers is hardly to be resisted, and no doubt the Dodgson family had fun in inventing names and identities for the questioners as well. Every Carroll collector will want this pretty little book, and the deserving among them can even be presented with an acknowledged rarity at a (for once) quite reasonable price.

Another early and unpublished work, the mock-epic Ligniad of 1853, in honor of a college friend named Woodhouse, has been unearthed by R. L. Green, and is one of the pleasant surprises in Lewis Carroll Observed, a collective volume edited by Edward Guiliano, under the auspices of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. In addition to Green, Gattégno, and Cohen, the distinguished contributors include Martin Gardner, Donald Rackin, Elizabeth Sewell, and others; most of the essays contain original material of some sort; the illustrations range from unknown photographs to unpublished Carroll drawings for Sylvie and Bruno; and the production is all that could be desired. If the book has a point to make, it is that there is still plenty of work on hand for the enterprising Carroll scholar, and that interesting discoveries are still waiting to be made. Morton Cohen, for example, digs up the early and not always favorable reviews of The Hunting of the Snark; Jeffrey Stern looks into the Pre-Raphaelite connection; Michael Hearn compares Tenniel’s Alice illustrations with those of his leading competitor, Arthur Rackham; and Gardner sallies forth in true White Knightly fashion to settle the disputed authorship of “Speak Gently,” the vastly popular American verses stilettoed in the Duchess’s idea of a lullaby. Gatte’gno’s contribution, and that by Ernest Coumet (on Carroll’s logic), are translated from the massive cahier put out by French Carrollians in 1970 and confirm the keen interest and high critical standards now prevailing in this area across the English Channel. If one or two other essays seem rather less rewarding, it is generally because they go on for longer than their content warrants or are seeking to establish a non-existent point. Harold Beaver’s attempt to find meta-physical parallels between the Snark and Moby Dick is one such example of the maxim ex nihilo, nihil fit. Since there is nothing to suggest that Carroll had ever heard of Melville, much less read him, alleged affinities of theme can only be coincidental and of no significance one way or the other.

For a still more cautionary instance of what happens when analogy is allowed to usurp causation as a critical principle, we need look no further than Francis Huxley’s The Raven and the Writing-Desk. Mr. Huxley is a throwback to the days of Shane Leslie and A. L. Taylor, a hunter of inaudible echoes and unlikely cryptograms who believes that, because an author has a reputation for whimsicality, his commentator has the right—or duty—to be whimsical too. This fallacy was for many a year the bane of Carroll studies, until put out of court in the 1950’s by the more reputable labors of Gardner, Hudson, and Green. With Mr. Huxley, it is revived in full, his nearly 200 pages being spent entirely in a sort of aimless gyring and gimbling through the length and breadth of Carroll’s works. These writings have been studied with care, and no small amount of out-of-the-way learning has been brought to bear on them; but when every link is a mere capricious association, and the only pretense of argument is conducted on nonsense principles, it soon becomes clear that the game is a silly one, and the author a bit of a bore. Carroll, of course, is not a writer who demands to be taken with immense seriousness; but he is also not to be trifled with. In his own odd way, he is, at his best, a sincere and serious artist, and not just the antic buffoon or juvenile story-teller that his more thoughtless admirers would like to have him be. Unlike the other authors mentioned in this review, Mr. Huxley has not yet got to the stage of seeing Carroll in this light. Whether he will ever do so is perhaps uncertain. But if he does, he certainly has the knowledge and ability to write a better and less irritating book.


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