I can bite anything I want

Matthew Bevis

  • Lewis Carroll by Morton Cohen
    Macmillan, reissue, 577 pp, £30.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 4472 8613 4
  • The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll edited by Morton Cohen
    Palgrave, reissue, 302 pp, £16.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 137 50546 0
  • Lewis Carroll: The Man and His Circle by Edward Wakeling
    Tauris, 400 pp, £35.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 1 78076 820 5

‘What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?’ the Red Queen asks in Through the Looking-Glass. The child to whom this question was addressed was in little danger of becoming meaningless. ‘I’m very glad you like Alice,’ Charles Dodgson wrote to Margery Worthington in 1895, ‘but what wicked wicked sisters you have not to let you read it till they go to school! But perhaps the mistress had told them they had to learn a page of it by heart as a lesson?’ Dodgson is toasting the success of the books he wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, yet also hinting at a preference for those who read them outside the classroom, maybe while playing truant. Carroll (let’s call him that) liked to imagine ways in which you could be a good and a bad student simultaneously; in a letter to Agnes Hull he says he’s been taking ‘lessons-in-forgetting’, and ‘after three lessons, I forgot to go for the next lesson.’ By the time the centenary of Carroll’s birth came round in 1932, G.K. Chesterton was fearful that nothing could be forgotten about ‘poor, poor, little Alice’, and that she had become the victim of a straitened sense of what constitutes an education: ‘She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others.’ It wouldn’t be long, he thought, before students would be faced by examination papers containing questions such as ‘(1) What do you know of the following; mimsy, gimble, haddocks’ eyes, treacle-wells, beautiful soup?’ or ‘(2) Record all the moves in the chess game in Through the Looking-Glass, and give diagrams.’ Those inclined to sit this exam now have several revision aids to choose from; The Annotated Alice (1960) sold more than a million copies, a sequel followed, and the 150th anniversary ‘deluxe edition’ is on the way.

The inhabitants of Alice’s dream enjoy using the words ‘never’ and ‘always’. ‘Always say “Your majesty”,’ the Red Queen commands, while the old crab warns her daughter: ‘Let this be a lesson to you never to lose your temper!’ Wonderland has plenty of pedagogues, and Alice observes at one point that she might as well be at school. Yet she isn’t simply ‘made to do lessons’; her dreams allow her to imagine how lessons might be redone and undone. Creatures teach her Reeling, Writhing and Arithmetic (with its four branches: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision). ‘They’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon explains, ‘because they lessen from day to day.’ This could suggest that lessons help you to grow older and wiser (there’s less to learn each day), or that the more you learn, the more you realise that lessons have limits (some things just can’t be taught). The Gryphon’s outline of his education – ten hours of classes the first day, nine the next and so on – prompts Alice to do a quick sum: ‘Then the eleventh day must have been a holiday?’ Correct, but then she asks, ‘How did you manage on the twelfth?’ and the Gryphon hurriedly brings the discussion to an end: ‘That’s enough about lessons.’ He would have her think that Subtraction is merely Distraction, but Carroll – a rigorously quizzical lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church – warmed to those who raised awkward questions. ‘Manners are not taught in lessons,’ Alice points out later. ‘Lessons teach you to do sums, and things of that sort.’ One of the problems with rules is that you need to know when and how to apply them, and there’s no rule for that. Despite – or because of – the assurance of the teachers in the Alice books, readers are invited to wonder whether their knowingness is a smokescreen for their uncertainty about what they really know.

Ambition is no less perplexing than Distraction. ‘We cannot conceive how a point, moving from “0” to “1”, through this infinite series of steps, ever reaches “1”,’ Carroll explained to one correspondent, ‘but a thing is not impossible, merely because it is inconceivable. The human reason has very definite limits.’ His relish for the infinities that lie between integers is also discernible in Wonderland. Getting from A to B proves as tricky as moving from 0 to 1, and it’s hard even to locate a clear starting point. Isa Bowman recalled Carroll demanding: ‘Tell me a story, and mind you begin with “once upon a time”. A story which does not begin with “once upon a time” can’t possibly be a good story. It’s most important.’ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland presents itself as something other than a good story when it starts like this: ‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do.’ Readers join her in medias res and in formation, but after she’s plummeted down the rabbit hole a sense of falling gives way to a sense of stalling: ‘Presently she began again’; then, a few pages on: ‘if only I knew how to begin.’ Everyone remembers the King’s sage counsel: ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop’; in these books, though, this advice is somehow unworkable or undesirable. At one point Alice is asked to tell a story and says she doesn’t know one, but this isn’t strictly true. It’s rather that Wonderland has challenged her faith in stories; she is less sure of her ability to tell them – and to tell things from them. ‘I – I’m a little girl,’ she tells the pigeon, and its reply is even more doubtful: ‘A likely story.’

Carroll enjoyed living a double life, and Alice appears to be excited as well as frightened by the thought that selves, like stories, are improvisations. ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’ That question unwittingly provides a clue to the puzzle about what sort of thing these books are: quest narratives, with the self as the quest-object. A moment later, as she imagines the adults calling down the rabbit hole, the same question takes on a different tone: ‘Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here.’ Now she sets the puzzle, and doesn’t seem to mind if it’s insoluble; not knowing who she is allows her to make herself up as she goes along. Questions beget quests, but whenever the image of the quest comes to the fore something weird happens. The boy who hunts the Jabberwock has to seek his manxome foe for a long time – so long that he needs a break:

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
        And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
        The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
        And burbled as it came!

So the Jabberwock finds him – and not when he’s actively seeking it. Maybe his thought breathed life into the creature; the boy needed a demon to conquer so he helped to invent one. This possibility sheds light on Carroll’s decision to repeat the poem’s famous opening stanza at the end. You could surmise that, although the Jabberwock has been vanquished, the quest wasn’t everything (life goes on; it’s still brillig and the slithy toves are still gyring and gimbling in the wabe). Or you could infer that the quest is so important that it must begin again. Perhaps the Jubjub bird will be slain this time, or the frumious Bandersnatch.

Carroll is frequently drawn towards a blend of both options: the quest-object becomes an alibi for the questing subject’s yearning for adventure. When the Cheshire cat asks Alice where she’d like to get to, she replies: ‘I don’t much care where, so long as I get somewhere.’ In Through the Looking-Glass she says of the scented rushes she leans out of the boat to pick that ‘the prettiest are always further,’ and she might as well be speaking of any of her holy grails. Carroll told Ellen Terry that it was ‘hopelessly difficult’ to secure ‘even the smallest bit of happiness’ (and added that ‘the more trouble we take the more certain we are to fail’), but these difficulties are cause for a peculiar kind of hope in the Alice books: sabotaging your own satisfaction becomes a way of keeping things interesting. One sentence the intrepid, ever-beginning heroine never manages to finish starts like this: ‘Of all the unsatisfactory – (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort to have such a long word to say).’ Prolonging the unsatisfactory needn’t be experienced as a trial, especially if it’s beginning to dawn on you that satisfaction itself might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

This continual flirtation with fulfilment creates stories in which anything could happen, and yet the strange power of the books comes from the sense they give that things could only have happened exactly the way they did. Although Alice is accosted by her dream, she’s also the architect of it: doors are locked, so a key pops up, but the key fits a door she can’t squeeze through and so on. It’s as if her unconscious were both co-conspirator and counter-agent, or as if it were trying to find ways to get her to see that the two roles needn’t be thought of as opposites. She dreams in order to get into trouble, and she gets into trouble so she can escape from it, and so she can escape into new difficulties: ‘“My head’s free at last!” said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment.’ She may well be privy to a secret Carroll confided to his diary in 1855: ‘There is, I verily believe, a sensation of pain in the realisation of our highest pleasures, knowing that now they must soon be over; we had rather prolong anticipation by postponing them.’ When the Hatter tells her she can speed up time in order to miss the day’s lessons and get straight to dinner, this isn’t only good news: ‘“That would be grand, certainly,” said Alice thoughtfully, “but then – I shouldn’t be hungry for it, you know.”’ From this perspective, the White Queen is speaking beguiling sense as well as infuriating nonsense when she says: ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.’ Alice becomes adept at finding ways to stay hungry. She’s never more gleeful than when she sneaks up on her nurse and shouts: ‘Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!’

We look before and after, and sigh for what is not; a child never does this,’ Carroll wrote in ‘“Alice” on the Stage’ in 1887, ‘only a child can say ‘“I am all happy now!”’ But the man who wrote the Alice books – as opposed to the one who looked back at them – didn’t really believe this, and when Alice says of those reeds that ‘The prettiest are always further,’ she does so ‘with a sigh’. Having achieved the best First in his year, Carroll wrote to his sister: ‘I feel at present very like a child with a new toy, but I daresay I shall be tired of it soon, and wish to be Pope of Rome next.’ The analogy is revealing; the child is the adult’s secret sharer, not the symbol of some long-lost golden age. As a hungry hyena, Alice is beastly, but then, as Carroll noted in his diary, ‘the character of most that I meet with is merely refined animal.’ Given the chance, children – like animals – are shameless about their appetites. Whenever Alice discusses pets in Wonderland, she stumbles on the realisation that pets are also predators: her ‘dear quiet’ cat Dinah kills mice, and the little dog down the road kills rats. Pets are like people: well-bred and brutal; house-trained and yet keen to follow their instincts.

Carroll kept his own instincts in check. Many commented on his abstemiousness, and his nephew said that children’s appetites filled him ‘with wonder, and even with alarm’. ‘He always said I ate far too much,’ Isa Bowman recalled. ‘He would never allow me more than one rock cake … This was an invariable rule.’ But there is more wonder than alarm in Carroll’s account of one little girl who, having been told that one of anything was enough, always wanted two; she was charged with being ‘greedy’, and was ‘found one morning sitting up in bed, solemnly regarding her two little naked feet, and murmuring to herself, softly and penitently: “deedy!”’ He tells another child-friend that he’s going to eat ‘a whole plum pudding’ and will reply ‘Nonsense!’ to the doctor who says he’ll be ill as a consequence. Whatever else it’s about, his nonsense is about appetite, about wanting something more – or something other – than what’s on offer.

But Carroll wasn’t ‘omnivorous! – like a pig. I pick and choose.’ He doesn’t dote on ‘all children’. It’s striking how often his letters to children gesture towards a scene in which he’s devouring them or being devoured by them. ‘Thank you very much indeed for the peaches,’ he writes to Mary Mileham. ‘They were delicious. Eating one was almost as nice as kissing you.’ Gertrude Chataway received this:

When a little girl is hoping to take a plum off a dish, and finds that she can’t have that one, because it’s bad or unripe, what does she do? Is she sorry or disappointed? Not a bit! She just takes another instead, and grins from one little ear to the other as she puts it to her lips! This is a little fable to do you good; the little girl means you – the bad plum means me – the other plum means some other friend – and all that about the little girl putting plums to her lips means – well, it means – but you can’t expect every bit of a fable to mean something!

This fable is designed ‘to do you good’ by encouraging you to do what you wish, or at least by refusing to tell you where your wishes will lead and what they might mean. When he was trying to find a title for his book, Carroll insisted to the playwright Tom Taylor that ‘in spite of your “morality”, I want something sensational.’ Twenty years later, he was adamant that the books ‘have no religious teaching whatever in them – in fact, they do not teach anything at all.’ The original version of Through the Looking-Glass featured an episode that captures the threat and the thrill of Carroll’s writing at its best. Alice encounters a wasp in a wig who looks her over and says that her jaw isn’t very well shaped. She screams with laughter, but then composes herself and replies: ‘I can bite anything I want.’


In his excellent Penguin edition of the Alice books, Hugh Haughton suggests that nonsense allowed Carroll to explore but also to deflect his attention from the dangerous world of his feelings. Indeed, if Alice isn’t simply Carroll’s heroine, but also his spokesperson or his accomplice, then the question of what these tales and their teller seem to want becomes more tangled – especially when we take relationships outside Wonderland into account. Robinson Duckworth, who helped to row the boat when Carroll first told the story of Alice to her ten-year-old namesake in 1862, recalled that ‘the story was actually composed and spoken over my shoulder for the benefit of Alice Liddell, who was acting as “cox” of our gig. I remember turning round and saying: “Dodgson, is this an extempore romance of yours?” And he replied: “Yes, I’m inventing it as we go along.”’ The ‘romance’ could be the story or the relationship between Alice Liddell and Dodgson. Duckworth’s ambiguity may be unwitting, but it hints at something that has troubled some of Carroll’s admirers. The author himself observed that ‘we are beings of very mixed motives,’ and was fond of pointing out that he didn’t quite know what he meant by his nonsense writings (the ideas ‘seemed to grow of themselves’, he said). When Humpty Dumpty uses a word it means ‘neither more nor less’ than what he chooses it to mean, but elsewhere Carroll added a rider: ‘a word means what the speaker intends by it, and what the hearer understands by it.’ So when he writes to Edith Rix of his relationship with a child that ‘what there is is sweet – and wholesome, I think,’ we are entitled to wonder whether the coda is assertive or unsure. Carroll was used to being asked, ‘What are your intentions?’ by anxious mothers of the girls he befriended; he once replied that ‘one does not usually have specific “intentions” with regard to a child of four or five.’ Not usually, no.

The Knave of Hearts would sympathise with his creator’s predicament. When called to defend himself against the charge that he stole the tarts, he points out that the vital piece of evidence – a potentially incriminating poem – doesn’t have his name signed at the end. ‘If you didn’t sign it,’ the King replies, ‘that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you’d have signed your name like an honest man.’ The Queen agrees: ‘That proves his guilt.’ Dodgson didn’t put his name to the Alice books either, and those who wrote to ‘Lewis Carroll’ at Christ Church had their letters returned unopened. The trial scene was a late addition, written after Carroll’s intimacy with the Liddell family suffered some kind of rupture. The poem speaks of ‘an obstacle’ that comes between the speaker and the addressee, and ends by insisting that ‘This must ever be/A secret, kept from all the rest,/Between yourself and me.’ Hunting through the text for a key to the life may be as hazardous and as silly as hunting for a snark, yet the work isn’t wholly insulated from the life, and nobody is guiltless in Wonderland. In his preface to Sylvie and Bruno, written decades later, Carroll wrote dully and dutifully of the ‘innocent merriment’ of childhood, but the word ‘innocent’ never appears in the Alice books. Readers are assured that ‘you are all pardoned,’ which only serves as a reminder that the threat of punishment is everywhere. Through the Looking-Glass opens with Alice saving up punishments for her cat, and then wondering what the adults have in store for her: ‘Suppose they had saved up all my punishments? … suppose each punishment was to be going without a dinner.’ If Carroll’s nonsense is about appetite, it is also about guilt – and about things that can’t be discussed at dinner.

Edward Wakeling has been studying the sources carefully for almost forty years, he explains, and his new biography has ‘kept to the facts’. But a few facts go unmentioned, as do the views of some who were there at the time (one of Carroll’s favourite child-friends told her son that she broke off the friendship when she felt that one of his kisses was sexual). Wakeling doesn’t mention Carroll’s break with the Liddells, and ends his account of the relationship with Alice by noting that she ‘drifted away and they saw very little of each other’. There isn’t any discussion of her sister Ina’s letter to Alice years later, in which she recounts what she told one inquirer: ‘I said his manner became too affectionate to you as you grew older and that mother spoke to him about it, and that offended him so he ceased coming to visit us again – as one had to find some reason for all intercourse ceasing.’ Although Wakeling acknowledges that some pages of Carroll’s diaries were deliberately destroyed, he doesn’t mention a pencilled note in the family archives stating that ‘L.C. learns from Mrs Liddell that he is supposed to be using the children as a means of paying court to the governess – He is also supposed by some to be courting Ina.’ Nothing is said about Alice’s admission that her mother tore up all the letters Carroll wrote to her, or about his agonised diary entries confessing ‘unholy thoughts’, or about Lord Salisbury’s comment: ‘They say that Dodgson has half gone out of his mind in consequence of having been refused by the real Alice (Liddell). It looks like it.’ When Carroll’s 27-year-old brother Wilfred fell in love with the 14-year-old Alice Donkin, Carroll reported that he and his uncle Skeffington Lutwidge had had ‘a good deal of conversation about Wilfred, and about A.L. It is a very anxious subject.’

You don’t need to feel that these bits and pieces add up to something you can be sure about in order to feel that a biography that omits nearly all of them is a little odd. Morton Cohen’s biography of Carroll (reissued for this anniversary year) refuses to shirk or to resolve these tricky issues. Even though he senses that Carroll saw himself as a ‘miscreant’, and suggests that diverted sexual energies inform Carroll’s creative work, Cohen doesn’t let conjecture run riot. But he does mention that Carroll sometimes felt ‘my own sinfulness more strongly than I could easily say in words’. Carroll’s life and writing were often shadowed by whatever he could not easily say; Cohen gives a good sense of the turbulence under the surface, without always claiming to fathom its exact causes or effects.


Wakeling’s Carroll is a much less conflicted figure. Discussing Carroll’s interest in photographing girls in various states of undress, for example, Wakeling claims that the artist saw the images as ‘perfectly respectable’. This doesn’t acknowledge Carroll’s mixed feelings about respectability (he admitted to having ‘rather outré and unconventional notions of Art’). The letters he writes to or about parents ‘who possess well-made children who have a taste for being taken without the encumbrances of dress’ strike a complex note; their seriousness of purpose – and the inscrutability of that purpose – is intensified rather than lessened by the connoisseur’s deadpan delivery. To envisage himself as an artist in the hunt for ‘any exceptionally nice little nudity … who is willing to be victimised for my benefit’ is to be laughingly self-aware about the strangeness of his own obsessions without quite laughing them off. Nabokov gets close to the mesmerising, disturbing quality of these images when he speaks of ‘those ambiguous photographs he took in dim rooms’. Whatever else Carroll shunned, he didn’t shun ambiguity. In 1892 he wrote to one correspondent that ‘all human things’ contain ‘some evil’ and gave five examples: drinking wine, reading fiction, going to the theatre, attending social entertainments and ‘mixing with human society in any form’. He added: ‘I cannot feel it to be my duty, on that account, to abstain from any one of them.’ Wakeling’s book depicts a man with a less mercurial sense of what duty might entail.

Maybe the book isn’t really a biography. On the penultimate page, Wakeling calls it a ‘survey of some key people who were part of Dodgson’s social circle’, and when describing how Carroll moved in these circles he’s anxious to keep him on good behaviour. He sent Tennyson’s son the present of a knife, only to learn that the boy wouldn’t be allowed to use it until he was older. Carroll replied:

However, as you are older now, perhaps you have begun to use it by this time: if you were allowed to cut your finger with it, once a week, just a little, you know, till it began to bleed, and a good deep cut every birthday, I should think that would be enough, and it would last a long time so. Only I hope that if Lionel ever wants to have his fingers cut with it, you will be kind to your brother, and hurt him as much as he likes.

Wakeling notes that his subject’s sense of humour has often been misunderstood; some readers don’t realise that Carroll is teasing, for ‘he was not a cruel man – quite the reverse.’ Comments like this only lead to further misunderstandings. Carroll’s letters to children are often just as good as the Alice books precisely because they stick the knife in; as you read them you sense that he was imagining – and enjoying – what the parents might be thinking. Playfulness is shadowed by danger and perversion, which is one reason you might want to play. As people get older, the letter intimates, they are allowed to do themselves more damage, or to consent to others doing it, and maybe the ageing process is itself felt as a kind of injury. But humour, like sadomasochism, can be a means of gleaning pleasure from pain. Although Alice tells the gnat that ‘You shouldn’t make jokes if it makes you so unhappy,’ ageing gnat-like creatures know that jokes are self-soothing as well as self-lacerating. Little in Wakeling’s book would help the reader understand why Carroll pretended to let his own book’s title slip from his memory: ‘I forget the name – I think it was about “malice”.’

Talking nonsense was Carroll’s way of making a mistake on purpose, which was in turn a way of thinking about the value of the rules that defined and denounced mistakes. The steward of Christ Church recalled that when Carroll became curator of the common room ‘he drew up a long list of rules. Quickly he himself broke them.’ And in Wonderland Alice ‘generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it)’. Yet correctness is also honoured in the breach. His early poem ‘Rules and Regulations’ advises ‘Learn well your grammar,/And never stammer’; ‘Eat bread with butter./Once more, don’t stutter.’ This provided comic relief for Carroll and his family (he had a stammer, as did six of his seven sisters), but the pleasure of reading the lines aloud comes from their own insistence on keeping time and good form. Rhythm and rhyme finesse speech into an achieved order, and the poem delights in this order while also casting aspersions on those who call the tune. The first and last spoken utterances in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland allow for a similarly split reaction to the dictates of time: ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’ the rabbit says as he runs by, and then, around 150 pages later, after Alice has woken up and told her sister the whole story, the latter replies: ‘It was a curious dream, dear, certainly; but now run in to your tea: it’s getting late.’ Carroll was a stickler for punctuality, and the echoing of these utterances across the book implies that Alice’s dream is shaped by the daily pressures of her waking life. Yet it could also suggest that, in one’s dream life, being late for an appointment is a way of testing boundaries or delaying gratification. By telling her story at such length, Alice is smuggling some of her fantasies into the real world. To be late for tea ensures she goes in to it with renewed hunger.

Alice’s favourite phrase is ‘Let’s pretend’, and she is keen to detect and unmask pretence in others. The drama of the books frequently arises from her suspicion that protocol is double-dealing; ‘that’s not a regular rule,’ she says to the Queen, ‘you invented it just now.’ Alice often senses that order may become a form of violence even though it may offer a protection from violence, which is I think what led William Empson to suggest that the Alice books contained a satire on things they treated as inevitable. That’s one of the great pleasures of Carroll’s style: it offers a series of rueful protests that somehow avoid sounding either too dispirited or too knowing. A contemporary of Carroll’s referred to him as ‘propriety-stricken’, and both senses of that resonant phrase come through in his confession to a Mrs Blakemore:

It is curious how apt one is, sometimes, to say just the thing most mal-à-propos. I was calling not long ago on a lady, whose husband suffers from periodic attacks of madness – so that one would wish to avoid all allusion to so painful a subject: and before I knew what I was saying, I found myself in the middle of a comic story about a madman!

This is indeed ‘curious’, but what’s curiouser and curiouser is the feeling you get that such mistakes are ones he secretly wants to make. He finds himself ‘in the middle of a comic story about a madman’ in at least two senses: he is the teller of the tale, but he’s also the star of it, for only a madman would put his foot in it by speaking as he did. To talk nonsense or to indulge in it is to suffer from ‘periodic attacks of madness’, and such attacks can be treated both as a plight and as a relief. Alice tells the Cheshire cat she doesn’t want to go among mad people, and it replies that she can’t help that because everyone’s mad in Wonderland, including her. ‘“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”’