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Lewis Carroll, Sylvie, and Feet of Clay

The Beaver kept looking the opposite way / And appeared unaccountably shy. I have loved Alice for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how many times I borrowed The Annotated Alice from the public library when I was in grade school; I read it so many times that I knew Gardner’s humorous, thoughtful commentary nearly as well as the text. (His multi-page, ramified analysis of “Jabberwocky” is particularly fine).

One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received, even better than the Lego Galaxy Explorer, was my own copy of AA. Even now, it sits on a bookshelf with the rest of my Carroll collection, between the lesser-known More Annotated Alice and a not-particularly-complete, leatherbound Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. Despite its sentimental value, its place on my bedside bookshelf has been supplanted by the magnificently-produced Definitive Edition. When arriving home late, the clock approaching midnight, I’ll often read a chapter or two after climbing into bed.

My mother, mercifully, did not approve of Disney movies. My first encounter with the horrible, horrible thing that those bowdlerizing bastards did to poor Alice was a Disneyized picture book at my cousins’ house. I recall well that surge of shock and contemptuous, righteous wrath at the inane perversion of a wonderful story.

But back to Carroll: the library also had a copy of the Complete Works, which I explored as I grew older. I was quite interested in the handwritten manuscript of the original Alice’s Adventures Underground, but the rest seemed thin and unappealing. I tried Sylvie and Bruno several times, but it was distressingly boring, and I felt strongly that Carroll shouldn’t be boring. The one redeeming feature was the recurring Gardener’s Song, stanzas of which are woven through the text.

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread,’ he faintly said,
‘Extinguishes all hope!’

This year, I determined to read all the Carroll in my collection, and it’s been quite an interesting experience. The poetry is largely dreadful, with occasional flashes of wit. Wonderland and Looking Glass retain their depth, whimsy, and charm, and Snark is as superb a piece of meaningful nonsense as has ever been written in English.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best-
A perfect and absolute blank!”

The piece I have found most affecting, though, is Sylvie and Bruno.

It’s awful.

Terrible.

I wanted to like it . . . but it’s a horrible conglomerate of cloying sentimentality; Carroll’s idosyncratic, obtuse, Christianish moralism; and miserable poetastery. What little story exists is tedious and poorly plotted, and the “Tottles” poem is almost physically painful to read. The least unpleasant aspect of the books is the Victorian conversations, which at least have some elements of interest.

If Alice is a fairy-tale for everyone, Sylvie and Bruno is a fairy-tale for Lewis Carroll.

Carroll’s prefaces to Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded only compound the distasteful impressions: above, I compared Disney to Dr. Bowdler, but Carroll actually proposes bowdlerizing Bowdler!

. . . A “Shakespeare” for girls: that is, an edition in which everything, not suitable for the perusal of girls of (say) from 10 to 17, should be omitted . . . Neither Bowdler’s, Chambers’s, Brandram’s, nor Cundell’s ‘Boudoir” Sharespeare, seems to me to meet the want: they are not sufficiently ‘expurgated.’ Bowdler’s is the most extraordinary of all: looking through it, I am filled with a deep sense of winder, considering what he has left in, that he should have cut anything out!

Alice is timeless, despite all her references to Victorian culture; Sylvie and Bruno come through as the fantasies of a particular, not very happy man who is very much clamped by the mental shackles of his own time.

I’m not sorry to have read it, but Carroll’s infatuation with Sylvie and his loving portrayal of the unpleasant Bruno have left a bad taste behind. Perhaps in a few years I will give it another try. For the moment, though, I’d rather re-read Little, Big; John Crowley uses S&B as one of many threads in his weft, and I’m curious to see what new facets might be revealed upon a new reading.

3 replies on “Lewis Carroll, Sylvie, and Feet of Clay”

I’ve written about this book at some length on my own blog; I, too, was immensely affected by it.

“Sylvie and Bruno come through as the fantasies of a particular, not very happy man who is very much clamped by the mental shackles of his own time.”

I think this is what the book ultimately more interesting to me than Alice. The latter has been so absorbed into our culture that it is virtually impossible to see it anew–whereas reading S&B brings home the utter alterity of late Victorian intellectual life. Carroll is constantly straining at his shackles, even if he can’t escape them, and in doing so we come to have a better sense of what was, and what was not, possible in 1890. The parts that make it up are much less digested than in Alice–they stick out aggressively and make one uncomfortable. For me, this challenge is the key appeal.

Hi, Conrad. Thanks for insights and the comment.

Carroll is certainly striving against his bonds. The entire structure of the book (with its nearly unmarked shifts between ordinary, eerie, and trance) seems to be an expression of this attempt.

“Undigested” is the perfect phrase. I think some of my current sense of almost-revulsion for S&B comes from the mixture of that now-alien cultural framework with my empathy for the painfully timeless and immanent human dissatisfaction that permeates the text. The wit and whimsy (and there is much of both there) seem slight and almost garish in that setting.

Perhaps this is my failing as a reader, but I’ve always found it hard to maintain the sangfroid of literary detachment; I tend toward strong identification with characters and moods.

With suitable forewarning I can steel myself to appreciate and even enjoy an otherwise unpleasant text, dissecting it with scalpel and speculum and sardonic penetration. I suspect this approach may be a more fruitful path to take on the next reading.

I’ll certainly check out your articles on S&B in detail . . . a quick glance does not suffice.

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