The Letters of Lewis Carroll by Morton N Cohen and Roger Lancelyn Green (edd) - review by Brian Sibley

Brian Sibley

He Wrote With a Pen in Each Hand

The Letters of Lewis Carroll


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‘Well!’ wrote the 27-year-old Charles Dodgson at the end of a particularly long letter to one of his cousins, ‘you ought to be very much obliged to me for writing so long a letter (and I hate letter-writing as a general rule)’. Some 1400 letters later, you might be forgiven for questioning the applicability of this ‘general rule’, but then the writer was more than capable of devising general rules to suit any circumstance – with the positive assurance that they really were ‘the oldest rules in the book’.

The majority of these letters are signed ‘C. L. Dodgson’, though a good few are the work of ‘ Lewis Carroll’. Still others support the notion (later so beloved of the psychoanalysts) that there was really a Mr Dodgson and a Mr Carroll: ‘A friend of mine called Lewis Carroll,’ writes Dodgson in one such letter, ‘tells me he means to send you a book. He is a very dear friend of mine. I have known him all my life (we are the same age) and have never left him.’

If Dodgson hated letter-writing, it must have been because it took him away from writing things other than letters – but what remarkable letters he wrote! Remarkable, because the presence in them of so much wonderful nonsense indicates the concentrated creativity that Dodgson applied to everything. Almost all these letters are constructed with the same painstaking care that went into the writing of his mathematical treatise and his Alice fantasies. The precision of their composition suggests not only a man with a severely ordered mind, but a man clearly aware of the literary – some might even say, publishing – potential of everything he wrote.

Here, chronologically cheek by jowl, are business letters, family correspondence, and literally hundreds of exchanges with his many child-friends. There are, of course, all the pleasures that can only be properly relished with hindsight; he wrote to Macmillans in 1866: ‘Your magnificent idea of printing 3000 more copies [of Alice’s Adventures] alarms me a little: I should have thought 1000 a large enough venture.’

But there is also much to be learned about the character of Wonderland’s creator from reading his letters in the purely arbitrary order of composition date, as opposed to any arrangement by subject-matter or recipient. For example, a letter written in 1883, as Curator of the Christ Church Common Room to an Exeter wine importer – ‘Mr C. L. Dodgson finds on measuring in ounces the half-bottles of Liqueurs received from Messrs. Snow & Co., that the half-bottle of Green Chartreuse contains 18 ounces, of Dry Curacoa 14 ¾, and of Maraschino 10’ – is followed by a letter to a child written in Looking-Glass script, by one concerning a candidate for a vacant teaching post, and by a note to accompany a presentation copy of his new book, Rhyme? and Reason?, which he sent to the original Alice (now distantly addressed as ‘Dear Mrs Hargreaves’).

Dodgson’s letters are full of invention which, at its most pedestrian, is eminently Victorian, and at its most unrestrained wildly imaginative. There are acrostics, anagrams, charades and rebuses; there are miniature letters purporting to come from Lewis Carroll’s fairy-friend, Sylvie, and others reputedly from Buckingham Palace: ‘Dear Mr Dodgson. I hope you will be able to come to our Garden Party on Friday afternoon. Yours truly, Victoria R.’ Yet as a letter-writer, Dodgson does not only make you laugh: he is just as often pious, ponderous, pedantic, and – as in his acrimonious correspondence with Tennyson – petulant.

Much has been written about Dodgson’s relationships with his child-friends and his unique understanding of the child mind. Here, however, we find shadowy doubts being cast upon this pleasing, comfortable portrait. There is an acerbity about some of his teasing that is more chilling than amusing; for example: ‘My best love to yourself – to your Mother my kindest regards – to your small, fat, impertinent, ignorant brother my hatred.’ Were there, sometimes, wounded feelings and tearful misunderstandings as a result of Dodgson’s ruthless humour? Very probably: ‘My dear Polly, Did you really take my messages in earnest, and are you really offended?’ But then, there were all those other times when Mr Dodgson said such funny, silly things: like that story about its having been so hot that the ink had evaporated and was floating round the room as a cloud of black steam, or the bill he sent you for that kid glove you inadvertently misappropriated: ‘To pain felt at loss … 3s 8½d; To annoyance do. Do … 4s 4½d; To time lost in hating thief … 1s 6d.’

Concerning Dodgson’s sympathies for the child as a species in general, however, it may be that’ we have somewhat overstated the case for the universality of his feeling and compassion. Dodgson was capable of such overweening snobbishness that one cannot help but conclude that his attitude was rather too ‘selective’ to be altogether admirable. He replied, for example, to someone suggesting a cheap edition of Alice: ‘my own idea is that it isn’t a book poor children would much care for’. And of a company of amateur child actors he wrote: ‘I did not try acquaintance with the children, thinking that, as they are only poor children, and not in the profession, they would be better for not being noticed and made to think much of themselves.’ Sadly, Lewis Carroll was not, in any way, as passionately sensitive to the cruel unfairnesses many Victorian children experienced, as were, say, Dickens or George MacDonald.

In conclusion, it must be said that Professor Cohen has annotated these letters with zeal and diligence, identifying everything and everyone mentioned – no matter how fleetingly – in Dodgson’s correspondence. For example, Dodgson’s sister, Mary, wrote to him asking if. he knew of ‘Wordsworth’s Christian Institutes’, in reply to which Dodgson remarked that her question could be answered in three words: ‘I do not’. Now, however, thanks to Professor Cohen, we know that the book Dodgson didn’t know was ‘a series of discourses and tracts selected, arranged and annotated by Christopher Wordsworth, 4 vols. (1837)’. What more could one ask?

Yet Morton Cohen’s real achievement is in having tracked down so many splendid examples of the art of letter-writing from the pen of an exponent who was so accomplished that if he did hate writing letters, it never showed.

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