The Letters of Lewis Carroll

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2147

As Morton N. Cohen tells us in the Preface to The Letters of Lewis Carroll , Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took letter-writing seriously—so much so, in fact, that on most days of his life he spent long hours in correspondence. Shortly before his twenty-ninth birthday, he began to keep a serially...

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As Morton N. Cohen tells us in the Preface to The Letters of Lewis Carroll, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took letter-writing seriously—so much so, in fact, that on most days of his life he spent long hours in correspondence. Shortly before his twenty-ninth birthday, he began to keep a serially numbered register of the letters he received and sent. By his death, he had reached No. 98,721. To this impressive total must be added those he sent over ten years in his office as curator at Christ Church, and, of course, those he wrote and received before age twenty-nine. We are not likely, therefore, to see a collected edition of Dodgson’s letters simply because of their sheer bulk, even were they all available.

Yet few of Dodgson’s letters have appeared in print, making Cohen’s edition immensely valuable to historians and students of Carroll in particular and the period in general. Of the vast total produced, no more than several hundred have been printed previously, scattered in various biographies, collections, and published diaries. Cohen and Green gathered more than four thousand letters for this edition, of which more than thirteen hundred are here published. For reasons of space, almost all the letters are those Dodgson himself wrote, with notes where needed for the reader to understand the gist of the correspondence. Most of them are “private” letters: that is, those written to friends, acquaintances, and family members on the small matters of day-today living—comings and goings, holiday arrangements, invitations and reunions, the presenting and acknowledging of gifts. Cohen has also included “representative samples” of more public correspondence: letters to the press, to his publishers, illustrators, and so on.

Cohen’s The Letters of Lewis Carroll will greatly benefit historians and biographers, the readers for whom the edition was almost certainly designed; it is a relatively minor drawback (though still a real one) that the edition will have limited usefulness to students of written English. In an oddly contradictory passage in the Preface. Cohen states that one of his goals is to remain “as faithful as possible to this painstaking letter-writer and to his orthographic gems and oddities.” He therefore preserves “almost all” of Dodgson’s punctuation, changing it “only when ambiguity required a change.” Readers must hope that Cohen always resolved the ambiguity in favor of Dodgson’s meaning, since they will have no idea where those ambiguities occur. Similarly, despite the assertion that he has preserved almost all of Dodgson’s punctuation, Cohen tells us that extended dashes “are everywhere” in the letters, and have always been replaced by commas or periods; these long strokes “usually differ from Dodgson’s dashes,” which have been retained. One is left with the suspicion that the punctuation of the printed letters, despite assurances to the contrary, may differ considerably from their original form, and hence gives us a picture of doubtful reliability of Victorian practice in friendly correspondence.

But this drawback does not affect the main intention of the book: to give a rich, running account of Dodgson’s thought as he expressed it to his correspondents; that purpose the edition fulfills. Given the popular picture of the Oxford don, the reader with little knowledge of Dodgson’s life may be surprised to discover the astonishing range of his contacts: even in this relatively small sampling—perhaps only a few percent of the total letters—one finds familiar names occurring again and again: people of prominence in government, church, and academic circles, as well as figures in literature and the arts—George du Maurier, the family of George MacDonald, Coventry Patmore, Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Sewell, Alfred Tennyson, Ellen Terry and other members of the famous acting family, Mary Arnold (Mrs. Humphry Ward), daughter of Thomas Arnold, and Charlotte M. Yonge, to mention just a few of the best-known.

Yet letters to people like these do not tell us much; unless they deal with matters of public concern, the letters to the famous reveal little about Charles Dodgson. Rather, they are the bread-and-butter interchanges of everyday life. For example, Dodgson made the acquaintance of the Rossettis through a mutual friend and arranged to take photographs of the family. The letters that follow are more likely to deal with negatives and the printing of copies than of anything else, although one finds the occasional compliment from one to another on some literary matter.

Dodgson’s personality, his special wit and charm, is more easily found in the medium we should expect—in his letters to children. These many letters do not change the view of Charles Dodgson sketched by his biographers—that of a man much more at ease in the presence of children than of adults—but they sharpen it and make it concrete.

They also tell us how Dodgson’s many child-friendships often began. When his two Alice books were published, when various editions of the works (such as a manuscript facsimile) were printed, when his other works appeared, he customarily ordered a large number for his personal use, with most of them eventually being presented as gifts to children with whom he became acquainted. The next step in the relationship, frequently, was an invitation to the child to serve as a subject for Dodgson’s hobby, photography. Once they had visited his house, children must have eagerly awaited the chance to return, because, besides being genial company and a willing storyteller, Dodgson had furnished his sitting room to delight children. Ethel Arnold, one of the daughters of Matthew Arnold, recalled much later that Dodgson had cupboards lining all four walls of the sitting room:

What wondrous treasures they contained for the delectation of youth! Mechanical bears, dancing dolls, toys and puzzles of every description, came from them in endless profusion. Even after I was grown up I never paid a visit to his rooms without experiencing over again a thrill of delicious anticipation when a cupboard door swings open.

That sitting room was the photography studio, the setting for the hobby that is the center of controversy about Dodgson. It does not seem that the edition will throw any particular light on Dodgson’s controversial nude studies of little girls. There are a dozen or so examples of letters to mothers and fathers, in which Dodgson is careful to obtain parental permission beforehand and to establish exactly any parental restrictions on dress or pose. And, of course, Dodgson is careful to consult the wishes of the children in the matter. Yet Dodgson knows well that he is asking for something exceptional and socially unconventional in asking for the child to model nude, although he seems piqued if the parents demur. His correspondence with the Mayhew family in 1879 serves as an example. Within six months after meeting the family, he suggests that he be allowed to photograph the three daughters, and asks the usual questions about dress, hoping that he will be given permission to photograph at least the two younger girls undraped. Cohen has not printed the letters from the Mayhews, but it appears that they have no objections, provided that Mrs. Mayhew is present. Dodgson’s letter of reply of May 28 has an uncharacteristic but remarkably testy tone; he says that he would rather do no pictures at all than feel not trusted.

There is no evidence in The Letters of Lewis Carroll of any close friendships with little boys, and that restriction again confirms what has been previously known about Dodgson’s preferences. A letter to E. Gertrude Thompson, an artist and sometime illustrator of his works, expresses this facet of his personality well: at question is a drawing of two fairies in a bower, and Dodgson suggests that one of the figures be reworked to make it unmistakably that of a girl. He says, “I had much rather have all the fairies girls, if you wouldn’t mind. For I confess I do not admire naked boys in pictures. They always seem to me to need clothes: whereas one hardly sees why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up!”

In the many letters that refer to his thoughts on photography and art, Dodgson consistently maintains that his interest in nude studies proceeds from a straightforward admiration for beautiful forms, and indeed there is no reason to disbelieve that the letters express Dodgson’s conscious understanding of his motives. A post-Freudian age brings an assumption of disbelief to disclaimers such as this; coupled with Dodgson’s distaste for the forms of boys, and his lack of interest in the forms of older models, his frequent insistence on no lesser motive than a pure love of art carries less conviction now than it did in his own time.

Yet the record as we have it does not discredit Dodgson: whatever sexual needs may have been satisfied by his hobby, they coexisted with a blameless behavior toward his models. For decades afterward, many cherished the memory of his affection, his good humor, and his real friendship. It is in his letters to children, then, that we should look for the special marks of Dodgson’s luminous personality. The judgment of these children will probably be history’s judgment of the man, whatever his quirks.

It is abundantly clear that Dodgson spent much time and honest care in the writing of letters to his child-friends, making the letters not merely prose to be read, but often pictures to be seen, puzzles to be worked, riddles to be answered, games to be played. Cohen’s edition includes specimens of circular letters, written in a spiral round and round the page; reversed writing, to be read reflected in a mirror; and many another typographical or artistic trick. These little presents range from something as simple as a monogram of the child’s initials to something as painstaking as a “fairy letter.” Dodgson sent Dymphna Ellis, thirteen years old at the time, a copy of the magazine that contained his story “Bruno’s Revenge,” and followed the gift with a tiny letter from Sylvie, one of the characters in the story. Sylvie’s “fairy letter” measures 1½ by 1⅝ inches and contains the date, address, eight lines of message, and the signature, all drawn with care in this minute space, surely meant to be read with a magnifying glass.

A considerable number of poems are encountered in the letters, composed specially for the occasion and the correspondent. Many of these poems contain an anagram of the child’s name or some special memory. One such was a reply to Alice Crompton’s praise of The Hunting of the Snark; Dodgson’s letter consists of a thirteen-line poem in which the first letters of each line spell out “Alice Crompton.” More intricate than an acrostic was the verse he sent to Edith Argles after he had enjoyed a vacation with the Argles family at Babbacombe. Each of the last ten verses is a riddle; when the ten words that answer the riddles are written in a list, the first letters of the words spell out “Babbacombe” and the last letters spell out “friendship.”

Dodgson took the age and interest of the correspondent into account: to the seven-year-old Georgina Watson he sent a three-page rebus as a birthday letter. To his fourteen-year-old cousin and godson, on the other hand, he suggests a word-game that he might play with his friends. Small sketches, riddles, and puns brighten the letters to children, and Cohen’s notes frequently record with what enthusiasm the recipients got the letters and the affection with which they regarded Dodgson both at the time and later in life.

Of course, as Dodgson aged, his child-friends grew up; the letters filled with games that he had sent them were no longer appropriate for those with whom he maintained a correspondence, so these playful treasures appear less and less frequently. More and more often he sounds like a clergyman using his correspondence for pastoral care. If the sampling we have is representative, he turns often to thoughts of God, of heaven, of consolation in the midst of difficulty. We see the mathematician and the logician in his letters to atheists and agnostics, and we see the faith of a believer in his letters to invalids. His thoughts turn to his own death, which he faces with equanimity; and he realizes that the Alice books especially will live on after him. For a logician, it follows that Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will outlive Charles L. Dodgson, the teacher, and that therefore only one of the two identities he kept so carefully separate will persist in the public memory. But it was a vain task, keeping the personalities separate, and an unnecessary one: as the letters show, Lewis Carroll was always there inside Charles Dodgson, and as the one endures, so will the other.

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