Alice and the road to Wonderland

5th January 1996 at 00:00
LEWIS CARROLL A BIOGRAPHY. By Morton N Cohen. Macmillan Pounds 25

Gillian Avery looks back at the life and work of one of the most enigmatic fantasists in the English language.

Morton Cohen, emeritus professor of the City University of New York, variously editor or author of seven volumes of Carrolliana culminating in this all-embracing biography, might be surprised to find how much explaining his subject requires to many Americans.

At one of Oxford's summer schools, held at Dodgson's own college of Christ Church, I annually try to account for the place the Alices hold in literary history. The teachers and librarians know the books, but younger members of the class are often encountering them for the first time. Their reaction to Carroll varies from perplexity or boredom to exasperation and downright dislike. Certainly they would never give him to their own children, they say primly.

To try to put Carroll into some sort of perspective, I show them a 1979 logic paper set by the Oxford examiners in the honour school of Literae Humaniores. "Could France have been in South America?" asks question 8. Question 14 is not so bald. It is a complicated scenario about A (in London) giving a slow-acting poison to B, who is in Brussels but who flies next day to New York where he dies, predeceased however by A. "When and where does A kill B?" Candidates are given three hours to meditate on four propositions like the above. The questions might well have been put by the Caterpillar or Humpty Dumpty, and perfectly catch the Oxford and the Carroll spirit the studied frivolity, the dottiness, the ruthlessness. Likewise the Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is an example of a once familiar type of Oxford don deeply conservative, obsessional, touchy, pedantic.

What has made the Alices possibly the most quoted texts in English literature? Why do they hold such a place in our culture? Morton Cohen is no more able to account for the phenomenon than anyone else. But he cheats a little in saying that Wonderland "earned almost unconditional praise" on publication. Although Wonderland had become a classic by the time Looking-Glass was published in 1871, to most reviewers it did not stand out from other children's books around in Christmas 1865. It was generally dealt with in a few bland lines, the Tenniel illustrations receiving as much attention as the text. The attitude of Charles Dodgson himself to his creations is curious. He seems to have thought of them as sedate and soothing little tales that would give "real and innocent pleasure to sick and suffering children".

He was apparently unaware of their nightmare quality, the anarchy, the violence, the frightening transformations. Still stranger in one who was so fussily particular about irreverence in others, he did not recognise that by parodying Isaac Watts's hymns part of every Victorian child's Sunday he was, according to his own criteria, approaching close to blasphemy himself.

It is perhaps this very unselfconsciousness that makes him such a supreme master of nonsense the same quality that made another clergyman, Francis Kilvert, one of the greatest Victorian diarists. He took over the ruthless spirit and the nonsense of the English nursery rhymes (few of which had ever been originally written for children) adding his own quirkish humour and his feeling for logical thought, and losing himself completely in the game. When he was consciously writing for the child on its mother's knee, as in the Nursery Alice, his style was no different from the most jejune of his contemporaries: "Well it doesn't look such a very little Puppy, does it? . . . And isn't it a little Pet?" And by stripping Wonderland of its jokes and puns and dialogue, he seemed not to realise where its uniqueness lay.

The 1860s and early 1870s were the halcyon years. After the Alices there was one more great comic work, The Hunting of the Snark, published in 1876, and then decline "yellowing leaves", as Morton Cohen calls the years from 1880. In that year he took his last photograph; in 1881 he gave up his mathematical lectureship; in 1882, though only 50, he described himself as "distinctly elderly, if not old".

The last years are sad to read about. The once-beloved Alice Liddell had long ago become a stranger, as haughty, hard and ambitious as her mother. He had few friends except the children who inevitably grew up and passed into a remote grown-up world where he could not follow them. He had no interest in teaching undergraduates, and, from 1882 when he took on the duties of curator of the Common Room, spent most of his time organising his colleagues' creature comforts.

The sunny moments came not from any adult contacts or scholarly achievement, but when he gave logic lessons at girls' schools or had little girls to stay with him at seaside lodgings. Would he have minded that this predeliction, which his contemporaries Kilvert and Ruskin shared and thought nothing to be ashamed of, is one of the main facts remembered about him now?

Professor Cohen has followed him through every phase of his life, and every aspect of it, producing the fullest and best-illustrated record that we are ever likely to see. He also thoroughly understands the background of one who was such a quintessentially Oxford character.

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