The Letters of Lewis Carroll
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,...
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