You must not ask

Marina Warner

  • Lewis Carroll: A Biography by Morton Cohen
    Macmillan, 592 pp, £25.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 333 62926 4
  • The Literary Products of the Lewis Carroll-George MacDonald Friendship by John Docherty
    Edwin Mellen, 420 pp, £69.95, July 1995, ISBN 0 7734 9038 8

Bachelor uncles can be popinjays who wear moustache trainers in bed in order to cut a dash the next day, as in Fellini’s Amarcord; or they might take the children aside at Christmas and show them how to trumpet a tune in farts, as in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In stories like that of Freud’s ‘Katharina’, they interfere with little girls, though for many reasons Freud substituted Katharina’s uncle for her father. Perhaps an uncle seemed a more plausible or even acceptable perpetrator. But the kind of bachelor uncle formed in England over the decades by the university ruling that dons should not be married offers a study in psychological and national identity that has no counterpart abroad. He lingered on – still does – though the rambling houses of North Oxford built to accommodate the new families of married fellows stand as monuments to the social changes that inaugurated his decline. His love objects were not usually girls, though John Betjeman, sighing over thighs, caught the authentic tone of enraptured and impotent yearning.

Morton Cohen is, however, at pains to rescue Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’) from this galère, and to present him as a well-rounded, sociable man, inspired by deep religious convictions, motivated by generosity and altruism towards his large family of brothers and sisters. His ‘Charles’ – deliberately distanced from earlier portraits by the unprecedented use of the Christian name – is exceptional for his brains and his multiple talents, but he is an ordinary man all the same, in full command of a normal range of emotions, who was afflicted with an obsessive – but chaste – passion for little girls. Cohen rejects the image of the eccentric cleric who never grew up, the dotty genius who repressed all possibility of mature attachment and was cursed with a perverse desire. With diligence and system, he surveys the breadth of Carroll’s interests: he digs into the nature of his Anglican piety, noting the graph of his nighttime prayers and appeals; he expounds his part in church conflicts of the day between High and Broad, between ritualism and evangelism, making much of his disagreement with his father over the seemliness of going to the theatre, for example, and noting how distressed he was that one of his two brothers, who both became parsons, took to evangelism. Carroll’s job, from 1853 on, as a Student then a lecturer in maths at Christ Church; his important contributions to logic; his victualling of college kitchens and his laying down of port in the college cellar; his occasional testiness with servants; his prodigious industry (he wrote more than 100,000 letters, Cohen reckons); his up-to-the-minute expertise in new technologies – his love of the camera was followed by use of an ‘electric pen’, Edison’s early form of photocopying, and, as soon as it appeared, the typewriter – all these win Cohen’s attention and his open admiration. He chronicles Carroll’s engagement with college and university politics, including his many disagreements with Dean Liddell, the pompous father of his Alice. He covers the remarkable series of gadgets Carroll devised – they include the Nyctograph, a braille-like cipher which allowed him to write in bed without getting out to light a lamp – and he maintains stoutly the importance of his mathematical cribs and puzzles and his hitherto underestimated contributions to Symbolic Logic.

Some biographies suffer because the writer does not like the subject, and communicates distaste; others can be harmed by the awed encomiast’s enumeration of virtues. Cohen loves his subject for his merits, not his faults, and keeps flourishing before the reader more items in the inventory of Carroll’s creative energy and virtue; his biography, the fruit of three decades’ research, is thorough, restrained (at under six hundred pages), yet the unique spirit of Lewis Carroll isn’t there: Cohen comes near to making Carroll tedious, something one would have thought almost impossible to achieve.

The mystery of Lewis Carroll won’t probably ever be solved, but arguing that he ‘reined in his impulses ... successfully transforming a life that might easily have teetered on the brink and fallen into the abyss into one that was useful, dignified and creative’ hardly catches the dazzling magic and imagination of the Alice books. Cohen has been pushed into this defensive line of explanation by the acute current anxiety about children and sex. At a moment when family bathtime snaps can lead to denunciations, police investigation and referral to the DPP, Cohen shows great courage in refusing to condemn – or pity – Carroll for his love of little girls. He suggests that Charles, deaf in one ear, stammering, childless, and magpie in his many pursuits and pleasures, was a disappointment to his brilliant (Double First – divinity and maths), industrious, progenitive father who, unlike his son, took full holy orders and, en route to Archdeaconry, sired 11 children. Disappointingly, he doesn’t explore Carroll’s relationship with his many sisters, for whom he wrote his earliest make-believe, in collections of light verse and games like Mischmasch and Useful and Instructive Poetry, and whom he continued to write to and to visit all his life. It might be as fruitful to speculate that as a boy, before he was sent away to school, he was eroticised by the many young girls surrounding him at home. When the family of Henry Liddell joined the new Dean in Oxford, his wife and their four children (more were on the way) offered a kind of mirror image of the Dodgsons, and of Carroll’s own sisters during his childhood at Daresbury, when they played charades and other games together, before their mother died. The second of the Liddell daughters was Alice, but she did not emerge as his best-loved child friend until Carroll had adopted himself into the whole family of the younger Liddells, photographing them, play-acting with them, arranging no end of treats and outings and surprises.

Mrs Liddell could be difficult, and eventually, when something happened, around the time of Alice’s 11th birthday, there was a rupture. But on the whole, the extent of parental co-operation with Carroll’s elaborate plans for mutual enjoyment is remarkable; such entrusting of little girls to a young single male isn’t common today. Part of the fun was Carroll’s effervescent parody of grown-up habits. He mimicked for his child visitors all the rituals of seduction: intimate tête-à-tête meals, picnics al fresco, rowing on the river, flurried exchanges of billets-doux full of delightful banter and jokes and compliments and fuss and names interlaced in acrostics; he took flattering, lively photographs of his friends for keepsakes, and even, as has become notorious, undressed them for the occasion – never without the consent of the mothers. Kisses were his reward: he teases in letters about the giving and the taking of them.

The strangeness of Carroll is central, and his love of girl children is central to his strangeness; he was a most dedicated wooer, and indefatigable in his enshrinement of the girls’ images. The only time he went abroad, with one of the few adult friends he seems to have had, the well-known preacher Henry Liddon, he stopped at a photographer’s shop in St Petersburg and ordered an enlarged carte de visite of a girl child he did not know. The shopkeeper ran after him, when the father had objected to the sale, but Carroll gave the man his card so that he could ask the father to reconsider; the father did so, and Carroll was able to take the picture to add to his huge collection. In 1870 the author asked Macmillans to include in every copy of Alice a request that every child reader should send him her photograph. Alexander Macmillan managed to deflect the idea: ‘Cartes! I should think so, indeed – cartloads of them. Think of the postman. Open an office for relief at the North Pole and another at the Equator.’

‘What are little girls made of?’ asks the kind of nursery rhyme Carroll liked to echo. ‘Sugar and spice and all that’s nice / That’s what little girls are made of.’ In this piece of proverbial wisdom, little boys are made of frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails (in case you need reminding). The Opies comment that the rhyme has been attributed to Southey, but that they can’t find it in his works. It captures the Romantic sentiment for little girls; however, Lewis Carroll liked giving his little child friends meals; there was always jam, he carefully explained to one mother as he issued the invitation. He himself ate very little: one meal a day. He was ramrod straight to the end of his life, thin as a rail, and thought nothing of taking 25-mile walks. But he understood the pleasures of sitting down together to eat; and when he volunteered his services as Curator of Christ Church’s common room, he took charge of the college’s catering and introduced the custom of afternoon tea.

Towards the end of his life, in 1889, he writes from Hatfield House to the child actress Isa Bowman, one of the last and closest of his child friends, that he has met Princess Alice, the daughter of Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold. She was named after Carroll’s own Alice Liddell, with whom Leopold had been in love. Carroll jokes to Isa: ‘Now that I have made friends with a real live little Princess, I don’t intend ever to speak to any more children that haven’t titles. In fact, I’m so proud, and I hold my chin so high [doodled portrait of himself supplied] that I shouldn’t even see you if we met!’ But then he rushes on without a break to reassure her: ‘No, darling, you mustn’t believe that. If I made friends with a dozen Princesses I would love you better than all of them together, even [if] I had them all rolled up into a sort of child-roly-poly.’ So the teatime treats return to convey just how sweet and spicy is the stuff little girls are made of. If kissing can be ‘aim-inhibited eating’, as Adam Phillips has suggested in his essay ‘Plotting for Kisses’, then Carroll’s tea parties and jam tarts, his jaws that bite, babies that turn into pigs and get their faces peppered, his old men devouring little oysters, can be seen as moves in his unconscious – and in his plot.

The innocuousness of his fantasies depends on how the sexuality is expressed and the form it took – and if Foucault is right (which I think he must be), Carroll’s obsession belonged with a set of cultural attitudes that made it different from paedophilia today, in the same way as girls holding hands during the Southern Italian evening passeggiata aren’t announcing they’re gay, though they are experiencing pleasure in that contact, and that public show of affection. But Carroll was aware of problems about his passion: and not just thanks to Mrs Liddell. He knew perfectly well he couldn’t circulate the nude images, for example, and he cancelled the plates so that they could not be copied. Mrs Grundy was a favourite bugbear, often referred to in his letters after permission had been refused by a parent. His behaviour was quite openeyed, and the avoidance of furtiveness a declaration of independence. The sustained parody of adult wooing in his entertainments was part and parcel of that delighting delinquency that buoys the humour of both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as well as the wondrous nonsense poems, like ‘The Hunting of the Snark’.

Carroll used childishness to mock pompousness and authority and rules and regulations; the little girl offered him a vehicle. The frank pleasure he shows in the spirited, defiant, capricious indocility of his heroines – both in the books and the photographs – does not tally at all with the ideal of Victorian maidenliness, even though Carroll often referred to his child friends in those terms: when he later remembered that blissed-out afternoon on the river in 1862 rowing Robinson Duckworth and the three Liddell girls, he called them ‘the little maidens’. Carol Mavor, in her essay on Carrol1’s photographs in Pleasures Taken, makes the provocative suggestion that with exceptional originality for his time and place, Carroll recognised children’s pleasure in their own beauty, their own desirability. At one nude session his visitors ducked under the tablecloth and emerged in the buff, on all fours, laughing.

The second Alice book was begun as ‘a sort of sequel’. Carroll wrote to Macmillans, nine months after Alice in Wonderland appeared, in 1865; the author was still cultivating many child friends, but his closeness to Alice Liddell had been brought to its abrupt and unexplained end. In the second book, to take Alice Liddell as its eyes and ears, he meditates more on the nature of a child than he had done in Alice in Wonderland. In Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen remarks in typically cross fashion: ‘What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning? Even a joke should have some meaning – and a child’s more important than a joke, I hope.’ Carroll thought highly of jokes, and they structured all his exchanges with children; he kept stores of toy sand games and puzzles in his rooms and brought them out to play with his visitors, he could conjure and do card tricks, he knew how to make a paper pistol pop, could produce imaginary animals from a folded handkerchief, pass a halfpenny through a sixpenny hole; he invented word games and picture riddles and ways of doing sums which were fun. And he parodied – as in Alice – solemn lessons and high sentiments and lyric poetry. His nonsense upskittled rules and regulations; as Hugh Haughton says in an exhilarating Introduction to The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry, writers like Carroll ‘implicitly brought into question the earnestness of being important, and the importance of being earnest’. The Red Queen wanted things to have meaning, and no doubt preferred those meanings to have sense and not to slither around; but Carroll does not much like the Red Queen, and he very much likes nonsense; detached from experience, enviably untied by convention, children were his means to enjoy the play of the mind.

Later on in the book the Messenger explains to the Unicorn that Alice is a child. ‘We only found it today,’ Haigha says. ‘It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!’ At this, the Unicorn exclaims: ‘I always thought they were fabulous monsters! ... Is it alive?’ Alice retorts that she thought unicorns were fabulous monsters, and the two of them strike a bargain and agree to believe in each other. It would provoke a little girl to be called a fabulous monster and referred to as an ‘it’; it would entertain future child listeners and readers to be whisked out of reality into the domain of unicorns and other wonders – or, to put it looking-glass fashion, to have such wonders conjured as real. But ‘large as life and twice as natural’ is perhaps a more revealing casual epigram: the naturalness of young girls embodies for Lewis Carroll the Romantic ideal, present in Blake and Coleridge; for them, as Cohen points out, the child was a free spirit in a providential state of natural goodness (and possessed untrammelled innocence). Carroll met George MacDonald in Eastbourne in 1854, at the speech therapist’s where he tried to cure his stammer; structural and thematic coincidences abound between Phantasties and the Alice books, as the MacDonald scholar John Docherty has patiently analysed, and the Scottish fairy-tale writer profoundly influenced Carroll’s metaphysics of innocence, his investment in child heroism.

When Carroll throws his voice to speak for his ideal audience – to see things as Alice does – his diction and vocabulary and rhythm change. He chooses a comic register, and it entails lots of oog’s and uu’s and j’s and k’s, sounds found more in Anglo-Saxon phonetics than classical (as in ‘Jabberwock’ and ‘Jubjub’ bird and in the famous line, ‘For the Snark was a Boojum, you see’), as if the natural language of the child corresponds to an earlier stratum in the English language itself, before Gallicisms and Latinisms and Hellenisms elongated the vowels and softened and aspirated the consonants and puffed long words and stretched jaunty, bouncy prosodic forms into breathy hexameters. The longing to escape from under the burden of learning into an unintelligible and pristine (uncreated till that moment) babble that communicates directly to the senses, without cultural freighting, marks some of Carroll’s greatest work, like ‘Jabberwocky’ and ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. Girls, little girls in bare feet, became for him the flesh and blood equivalent of this state of language.

He didn’t like them any more when they had grown up, because, as he wrote harshly in a late letter, after 14 they no longer had ‘a beautiful figure’; but it was also because they had learned by then how they were expected to behave. The rules and regulations had achieved their end. The photograph he took of Alice in 1870, when she was 18 and the families were no longer friends, shows her sunken into the chair, her arms squeezed by her sides as if, out of frame, she’s twisting her hands, her eyes resentful, a whipped bitch kind of a look, not even the faintest ghost of her seven-year-old mischief-making glee remaining. She looks shamed – by what she now understands Carroll’s attention to have been? By her mother’s disapproval? By her sense that Carroll no longer finds her enchanting? It’s a sad portrait, but, like so much of Lewis Carroll’s work, it’s masterful in its precision.

Through the Looking Glass, which he was putting through the press at the time of taking this last portrait of Alice, ends with a kind of nostalgic lover’s complaint:

Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

When he speaks/writes as himself, as he does here, when he stops throwing his voice through the child medium, his language goes slack and dreamy in the worst sense; many of the grownup efforts at poetry Cohen quotes are truly difficult to reconcile with the author of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.

This closing poem from Through the Looking Glass does, however, end with the famous question – ‘Life, what is it but a dream?’ Carroll suffered from insomnia – hence the Nyctograph – and spent many nights invoking God’s mercy for his sinfulness and resolving to begin a new man the next day. His fascination with night states led him, later in his life, to postulate the reality of imaginary worlds. The Wonderland of fairy tale gradually took on a character beyond nonsensical topsy-turvy; in keeping with other later Victorians, like his friend George MacDonald and their associate in fantasy Conan Doyle, Carroll did not see himself as inventing dreamworlds, but as their recorder. Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, the 1893 final volume of his ambitious, allegorical work for children, includes an Introduction where he distinguishes ‘various psychical states, with varying degrees of consciousness’. In the ‘ordinary state’, ‘Fairies’ do not make themselves known. The ‘eerie’ state allows a double awareness, of actual surroundings as well as ‘the presence of Fairies’; and the third state is the strongest: ‘a form of trance, in which while unconscious ... and apparently asleep, he (i.e. his immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of the Fairies.’

By the time he was composing Sylvie and Bruno Carroll was using the word ‘fairy’ even more frequently as a substitute for ‘girl’ than he had in his early verse. In 1845, he had ventriloquised a little charmer’s reproof:

‘What may I do?’ at length I cried,
Tired of the painful task.
The fairy quietly replied,
And said, ‘You must not ask.’

By 1887, when he added an envoi to a new edition of Looking Glass, a fairy sets aside ‘tricks and play’ to send her Christmas greetings to ‘gentle children, whom we love’. Carroll believed that he could cross the border between reality and fantasy, that he had crossed it, and that the inhabitants he had found there were just such little girls as those whom he arranged to pose for the dainty elvish illustrations Gertrude Thomson made under his instructions for his last book, Three Sunsets and Other Poems.

Lewis Carroll’s archive of little girls was tossed onto the grate in his rooms in Christ Church or otherwise dispersed after his death in 1898, when his family destroyed or auctioned the contents of his room, all the toys and puzzles, games and riddles, most of the last work on Symbolic Logic, and possibly all the letters Alice had written him. Odd that Carroll’s relatives, as they quickly cleared the suite of rooms on Tom Quad, did not think of the documents’ value. Even if they were blind to their intrinsic interest, why didn’t they consider the larger commercial possibilities, since Carroll had supplemented and even supported them throughout on the surprisingly fat proceeds of his writing for children? But that bonfire spoiled Carroll-lovers’ hopes of knowing him better, and together with the censorship of the crucial years in Carroll’s surviving diary, has effectively sabotaged any biographer’s attempt to get close to him.