Dodgson's Dodges: On Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno
      Thomas Christensen   

homeward bound


All old Dadgerson's dodges one conning one's copying and that's what wonderland's wanderlad'll flaunt to the fair.
    -- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Success in book publishing is often said to depend on "word of mouth." In this nebulous concept publishers and authors place any lingering hopes for an ailing title. So it was for Lewis Carroll, disappointed by sales of 13,000 copies of his magnum opus, Sylvie and Bruno: "I am quite satisfied that its small sale is not at all due to insufficient advertising," he wrote his publisher, Macmillan, adding hopefully that perhaps "it will get known by people recommending it to their friends."<1>
    Rarely has word of mouth taken so long to work its magic. Like others cursed by extraordinary success (his younger contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, whose public simply would not allow him to kill off Sherlock Holmes), Carroll could never satisfy an audience that wanted only another Alice. As a result, little Alice had become a centenarian by the time respect for Carroll's remarkable accomplishment in the two Sylvie and Bruno novels really began to spread. Long overdue translations into French (1972), Spanish (1975), and Japanese (1976) signaled a new interest in the work. And with the new interest came a new evaluation: the distinguished French critic Gilles Deleuze termed the work "a masterpiece which shows entirely new techniques compared to Alice and Through the Looking-Glass."<2>


The problem was that Sylvie and Bruno was very little like the Alices. "On one issue," noted one of Carroll's biographers, "he was firmly resolved: that the project should be completely different from the Alice books."<3> Another biographer adds, "Sylvie and Bruno bears the same relation to Lewis Carroll's earlier works, mutatis mutandis, as Finnegan's Wake [sic] to the more intelligible earlier productions of James Joyce"<4> -- an assessment echoed by James Atherton, a leading authority on the Wake:

In the Preface to Sylvie and Bruno Lewis Carroll remarks that "Perhaps the hardest thing in all literature . . . is to write anything original." But Carroll was so determined to be original that he spent twenty years making sure that the book which he intended to be his masterpiece was unlike anything else ever written. James Joyce worked for seventeen years on Finnegans Wake, a book quite as original as Sylvie and Bruno; indeed one which will probably remain for ever the standard example of the danger of being too original. Yet many of the wildest and most startling features of Finnegans Wake are merely the logical development, or the working out on a larger scale, of ideas that first occurred to Lewis Carroll.<5>

That Carroll attempted something completely new in Sylvie and Bruno is not surprising, for he was by nature an inventor. This, of course, is the quality that Joyce, another determined literary inventor, perceived in Sylvie and Bruno (significantly, it was the work of Carroll's that Joyce read most attentively),<6> at a time when most others could see only that it was, disappointingly, not another Alice. (Another writer intrigued by the books was Evelyn Waugh; in a discussion of them, he called Carroll "one of the great imaginative writers of the language."<7>) As Jean Gattegno remarked, Carroll was "first and foremost, a real inventor, for whom the joy of discovery is one of the greatest delights life has to offer. . . . A joy of discovery, of invention; this is an element we must be very careful never to forget in any effort to capture the personality of Lewis Carroll."<8>
In Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll's love of invention is expressed in many ways. "He really thought that absolutely everything could be improved upon, and was prepared to consider any solution that was not a physical impossibility: thus the fantasies devised in the Sylvie and Bruno books are not to be dismissed as sheer nonsense--nor have they always been, as witness the 'black light' described in the Professor's lecture."<9>
    But it is in the literary art of the novel that Carroll is most profoundly innovative in Sylvie and Bruno.


In 1865, Carroll turned Victorian children's literature on it head in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. There had been nothing like the Alices in English children's literature--popular books of the time were didactic stories such as Goody Two Shoes and Frank and Rosamond. "English books written for children were supposed to be realistic in order to provide essential instruction in religion and/or morality, that the child might become a virtuous, reasonable adult."<10> But in the Alices, Carroll lays bare the lack of reason in the adult world. In "You Are Old, Father William" (recited by Alice to the caterpillar, who pronounces it "wrong from beginning to end"), Carroll parodied Robert Southey's didactic poem, "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them." Carroll's version begins:

"You are old, father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head --
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

So Carroll somersaulted his way into literature, turning literary convention upside down.
    The moralizing authority figure is mocked in his portrayal of the Duchess, who argues that "Everything's got a moral, if you can only find it" and to illustrate her point offers Alice this bewildering homily:

And the moral of that is-- 'Be what you would seem to be' --or, if you'd like it put more simply--'Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'"

Alice, unlike other Victorian child protagonists, is critical, defiant, and self-assertive. She is the only one to stand up to the arbitrary and domineering Queen. "The underlying message of Alice, then, is a rejection of adult authority, a vindication of the rights of the child."<11> This, not its nonsense, is the truly subversive element in the Alices.
    Nearly a quarter century later, in the two volumes of Sylvie and Bruno (Sylvie and Bruno was first published in 1889, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded in 1893) Carroll launched an attack on the Victorian novel that was perhaps even more subversive. Gathering together diverse materials to include in them, Carroll called the result "litterature," and he challenged the reader to identify the "padding" in the stories. "Victorian novels," as Gattegno observes, "would never dream of describing themselves in this ironic and even sacrilegious way."<12> Nor would most Victorian writers dare to begin as Carroll does, in midsentence: "--and then all the people cheered again" (a device Joyce picked up for the opening of Finnegans Wake). Carroll introduces self-reflexive mannerisms that anticipate Joyce, Queneau, Beckett, and the whole line of artifice-oriented modern writing. For example, when the narrator first encounters Lady Muriel, he reflects: "And this, of course, is the opening scene of Vol. 1. She is the Heroine. And I am one of those subordinate characters that only turn up when needed for the development of her destiny."
    But the most radical element of the novel is its simultaneous, separate, yet mysteriously corresponding plots, which take place in separate planes of reality that shift with dizzying abruptness, as Anne Clark explains:

Dodgson hinges his story on an intricately worked-out series of hypotheses. First, that besides the world in which we live there exist two others: its counterpart, called Outland, whose society is a kind of burlesque of the real world, and Fairyland as we all understand it. Second, that human beings, unseen and in a state of trance, may observe people and events in Outland, and that in another state, which Dodgson describes as "eerie," they may participate in adventures in Fairyland, without losing consciousness of events in the real world. Thirdly, time may reverse or stand still, and fairies may assume human form. The links between Outland and the real world are the narrator, who passes back and forth between the two, and Sylvie and Bruno, alternately appearing in fairy form or as human children.<13>

The main story lines of the novels concern an attempt by the warden of Outland to usurp the birthright of the fairy children Sylvie and Bruno, and the rivalry of Captain Eric Linden and Dr. Arthur Forester for Lady Muriel Orme, in the English town of Elveston. The first plot has the form of a folktale, the second the form of a romance, but Carroll quickly undermines ordinary expectations of these genres. Characters on one level suddenly transform into equivalent, yet distinct, characters on another level: indeed, the very nature of character is challenged, as Carroll explores the borderline between dreaming and waking, probing the limits of language and logic.


By challenging conventional concepts of reality and character, Sylvie and Bruno played an important role in releasing the novel from Victorian notions of realism and preparing the way for the ground-breaking work of early twentieth-century writers such as Joyce, Kafka, Bulgakov, Pirandello, and Breton.
    "Is all our Life, then, but a dream . . . ?" asks the first line of Carroll's dedicatory poem, and he continually undermines our expectations of novelistic reality. It was easy enough, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, to explain that it was all a dream, that the Queen was only a playing card after all, as Alice wakes to find her sister and Dinah just as she had left them. "But Sylvie and Bruno is contrived to make it much more difficult for the reader to maintain this sort of psychical distance from the material. He drifts in and out of Fairyland with the Narrator. Thus he is gradually taught to understand that the limits of reality are blurred, that it is not so easy to say that this is the world of reality while that is the world of nonsense and fantasy."<14> In Sylvie and Bruno dreams are merely the "other side" of reality, and the two are inextricably joined, leading in and out of each other like a Mobius strip. "Carroll's aim," as Gattegno puts it, "is to bring dreaming to the very heart of reality seen as an object of study and experimentation."<15>
Carroll's view of character had always run counter to conventional Victorian notions. In the Alice books, character had been reduced to two-dimensions: playing cards, disembodied smiles (though Alice herself is elastic, to say the least). Here character becomes fluid, as one person dissolves into another in a series of kaleidoscopic correspondences. Like a modernist novelist, Carroll shows us "the seams in his piece of work, ignoring the so-called motivation of the realistic novel, choosing instead to transform what others call psychological depths into a contact between two surfaces."<16>


Lewis Carroll is synonymous with nonsense, and the Sylvie and Bruno books contain some fine examples of this most demanding literary form: the Outlandish watch that makes time run backward; Mein Herr's two-party system of life, in which people are divided into teams, one of which tries to do work and the other to prevent it; the mad professor's manic inventions.
    Carroll's play with language is similar to his play with story, in that it too often depends on various kinds of doubling. For example, he often uses punning to "move the discourse to another place, interrupting the purpose at hand by introducing a universe that 'does not count,' that does not go or get anywhere. This is the universe of the Alice conversations and of most of Sylvie and Bruno. Conversations are continually halted by puns, by a splitting of the discourse into two simultaneous and disparate paths, each followed by a respective member of the conversation."<17>
    The novels contain some of the best examples of Carroll's nonsense poetry, including "The Mad Gardener's Song," which operates as a refrain throughout the work and announces Carroll's themes of reality and perception:

He thought he saw an Elephant
That practiced on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
"At length I realize," he said,
The bitterness of life!"

Or "The Pig-Tale," which offers this caution to the reader (and recalls one of Carroll's lectures in his alter ego of Charles Dodgson, entitled "Feeding the Mind," which asked the question, "I wonder if there is such a thing in nature as a FAT MIND? I really think I have met with one or two: minds which could not keep up with the slowest trot in conversation; could not jump over a logical fence to save their lives; always got stuck fast in a narrow argument; and, in short, were fit for nothing but to waddle helplessly through the world"<18>):

Little birds are writing
    Interesting books,
    To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted--
    Letterpress, when toasted,
    Loses its good looks.

Carroll's intention, as he saw the end of his life approaching, was to mix nonsense with "some of the graver thoughts of human life." Consequently, the novels contain more philosophizing than other of Carroll's work, and this, together with Bruno's rather cloying baby-talk, is the most off-putting element of the books. Many critics, such as John Francis McDermott, subscribe to the notion that Carroll was a split personality. They attribute "the good parts" of Sylvie and Bruno to Carroll and "the bad parts" to the dull don, Dodgson. But it is worth recalling that other Victorian classics such as The Secret Garden and At the Back of the North Wind, and even much of Dickens, are, to various degrees, also marred by a penchant for sentimentalizing. "One has only to compare Sylvie and Bruno with any one of the novels of George Eliot (who did not consider herself a Christian at all) to see how pervasive was the religious sense of the time."<19>
    Carroll's message is socially oriented, a philosophy of charity and universal love: "Sylvie will love all." Arthur sacrifices himself to the sick during the epidemic as an act of charity; Sylvie and Bruno care for others, Uggug only for himself. Carroll's view of sin is also socially focused, and, because it takes environment into account, surprisingly modern: a desperate criminal's major crime may be a lesser sin than an apparently minor failing in one who is advantaged (from which Arthur takes heart: "millions whom I had thought of as sunk in hopeless depths of sin were perhaps, in God's sight, scarcely sinning at all"). Similarly, Carroll opposes the ritualization of religion. It is the spirit of religion that is foremost for him. Indeed, his philosophy of universal love amounts to an homage to vitalism, to the spirit that propels life, to that same energy that enlivens his own unequalled nonsense. So it is here that, in the end, his nonsense and his Victorian philosophizing meet. As Gattegno writes: "Sylvie and Bruno's song about "love" is really a hymn to the universal power of sexuality, as the source of everything that exists:"<20>

For I think it is Love,
For I feel it is Love,
For I'm sure it is nothing but Love!


There is at present (as we go to press) no satisfactory edition of Sylvie and Bruno in print. Some versions, periodically in and out of print, contain only the first of the two volumes, which deceives and cheats the reader.<21> The full work is most readily available in The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, originally published in 1936 by the Modern Library and often reissued, usually in inferior reproductions. Despite the title, it does not include all of Carroll's work, but, weighing in at more than 1300 pages, it is ample enough to make for a most undesirable presentation of these long novels. Nor do the Complete Works include illustrations for the novels, and Carroll always wrote with illustration very much in mind. Thus, this Mercury House edition fills a long-standing need. But more than that, we at Mercury House feel that, with Renée Flower's brilliant scratchboard interpretations and a fine new design by Sharon Smith, this edition is the most attractive realization of Lewis Carroll's vision of these books ever.

(c) Thomas Christensen
San Francisco
23 April 1991


This was the introduction ("Editor's Note") to the Mercury House edition of Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno.


A New Literary Invention
A Victorian Novel
Toward Modernism
Nonsense and Moralism


1. Quoted in Derek Hudson, Lewis Carroll: An Illustrated Biography (New York:, New American Library/Meridian, 1977), p. 231.

2. Gilles Deleuze, Sylvie et Bruno L'Envers et L'Endroit (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972), quoted in Jean Gattegno, "Sylvie and Bruno, or the Inside and the Outside," in Edward Guiliano, ed., Lewis Carroll: A Celebration (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982), p. 167.

3. Anne Clark, Lewis Carroll: A Biography (New York:, Schocken, 1979), p. 246.

4. Hudson, p. 231.

5. James S. Atherton, "Lewis Carroll: The Unforeseen Precursor," in his The Books at the Wake: A Study of Literary Allusions in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1959, 1974), p. 124.

6. Atherton, p. 135.

7. Kathleen Blake, Play, Games and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 150.

8. Quoted in Clark, p. 255.

9. Jean Gattegno, Fragments of a Looking-Glass, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976), p. 106.

10. Elsie Leach, "Alice in Wonderland in Perspective," in Robert Phillips, ed., Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as Seen through the Critics' Looking-Glasses, 1865-1971 (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 89.

11. Ibid., p. 92.

12. Jean Gattegno, "Sylvie and Bruno" p. 168.

13. Clark, p. 246.

14. Edmund Miller, "The Sylvie and Bruno Books as Victorian Novel," in Edward Guiliano, ed., Lewis Carroll Observed: A Collection of Unpublished Photographs, Drawings, Poetry, and New Essays (New York: Clarkson W. Potter, 1976), pp. 135-136.

15. Gattegno, "Sylvie and Bruno" p. 169.

16. Gattegno, "Sylvie and Bruno, or the Inside and the Outside," p. 172.

17. Susan Stewart, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979), p. 161.

18. See Blake, p. 22 ff.

19. Gattegno, Fragments of a Looking-Glass, p. 235.

20. Gattegno, Fragments of a Looking-Glass, p. 186.

21. "Carroll clearly intended us to have a single work in two volumes called Sylvie and Bruno. The diverse materials of this book are all rather neatly interwoven." Edmund Miller, "The Sylvie and Bruno books as Victorian Novel," in Guiliano, p. 132.

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