Wednesday, 2 January 2008

"A Selection from the letters of Lewis Carroll "


(The Rev. Charlkes Lutwidge Dodgson) to his child-friends.... edited by Evelyn M Hatch 1933

I read a lot of diaries and books of correspondence and find them a fascinating insight into the life and times of people famous and obscure over the centuries. But for a long term project that I shall explain to my readers another day I probably would not have bothered with Lewis Carroll but I am glad that I did.

Normally I try very hard to see the best side of people and not to judge people’s motives and behaviour based upon the usual preconceptions and biases. For some unknown reason, in the case of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – the creator of Alice in Wonderland – I have always had difficulty giving him the benefit of the doubt. An unmarried man who spent his life surrounded by little girls... I regret to say the stereotype seemed a little unhealthy to me.

This book almost certainly vindicates him. It is apparent from his bucketloads of correspondence that he simply enjoyed entertaining them. His letters to his child-friends is in turns silly, mock bad tempered, and full of little puzzles for them to do. He obviously got enormous satisfaction out of their company and their correspondence and the feelings must have been mutual as many of his child-friends continued their correspondence into later life when they were grown-up and married. Having got that admission of stereotyping off my chest I can go on to review the book itself...

Well edited, the background to each set of correspondence is explained including how he met the child in the first place – often chance encounters in the park or on the beach or through them writing to him as the author of the Alice books and ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. The chance encounters become less sinister when you realise he made money taking perfectly respectable portrait photos of the children for their parents.

The letters themselves show a man who was taking the opportunity to both amuse and educate and whose role was that of the ‘Uncle’ who pretended to be grumpy but wasn’t really. A couple of examples follow:-

Ch. Ch. Ap. 30/81
Hateful Spider,
(You are quite right. It doesn't matter a bit how one begins a letter, nor, for the matter of that, how one goes on with it, or even how one ends it - and it comes awfully easy, after a bit, to write coldly - easier, if possible, than to write warmly. For instance, I have been writing to the Dean, on College business, and began the letter "Obscure animalcule," and he is foolish enough to pretend to be angry about it, and to say it wasn't a proper style, and that he will propose to th Vice-Chancellor to expel me from the university: and it is all your fault!)....
And so farewell,
ever scornfully yours,

Christ Church,
May 16, '90
Dearest Isa,
I had this (a copy of Sylvie and Bruno) bound for you when the book first came out, and it's been waiting here ever sionce Dec. 17, for I really didn't dare to send it across the Atlantic - the whales are so inconsiderate. They'd have been sure to want to borrow it to show to the little whales, quite forgetting that the salt water would be sure to spoil it....
Ever your loving
Uncle Charles

The Chestnuts,
Jan. 1. '95
Yes, my dear Edith, you are quite correct in saying it is a long time since you heard from me: in fact I find that I have not written to you since the 13th of last November. But what of it? You have access to the daily papers. Surely you can find out, negatively, that I am all right? Go carefully through the list of Bankruptcies: then run your eye down the Police Cases: and if you fail to find my name anywhere, you can say to your mother, in a toine of calm satisfaction, "Mr Dodgson is going on well." I've brought with me here, as a sort of holiday-task, a bundle of 50 or more letters requiring answers - It needs great energy to begin on them....

The REVEREND CHARLES LUTWIDGE DODGSON (27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898), better known by the pen name Lewis Carroll, was an English author, mathematician, logician, Anglican clergyman and photographer.

His most famous writings are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass as well as the poems "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Jabberwocky", all considered to be within the genre of literary nonsense.

His facility at word play, logic, and fantasy has delighted audiences ranging from children to the literary elite, and beyond this his work has become embedded deeply in modern culture, directly influencing many artists.

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