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>
NEW LITERARY INVENTION
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
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>
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>
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
But it is in the literary art of the novel that
Carroll is most profoundly innovative in Sylvie and Bruno.
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:
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?"
Carroll somersaulted his way into literature, turning literary convention
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:
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.'"
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:
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>
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.
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,
"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>
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
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
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:
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!"
"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>):
birds are writing
To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted--
Letterpress, when toasted,
Loses its good looks.
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
I think it is Love,
For I feel it is Love,
For I'm sure it is nothing but Love!
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.
23 April 1991
was the introduction ("Editor's Note") to the Mercury House edition
of Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno.
New Literary Invention
A Victorian Novel
Nonsense and Moralism
Quoted in Derek Hudson, Lewis Carroll: An Illustrated Biography
(New York:, New American Library/Meridian, 1977), p. 231.
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.
Anne Clark, Lewis Carroll: A Biography (New York:, Schocken, 1979),
Hudson, p. 231.
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.
Atherton, p. 135.
Kathleen Blake, Play, Games and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis
Carroll (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 150.
Quoted in Clark, p. 255.
Jean Gattegno, Fragments of a Looking-Glass, trans. Rosemary Sheed
(New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976), p. 106.
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.
Ibid., p. 92.
Jean Gattegno, "Sylvie and Bruno" p. 168.
Clark, p. 246.
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.
Gattegno, "Sylvie and Bruno" p. 169.
Gattegno, "Sylvie and Bruno, or the Inside and the Outside,"
Susan Stewart, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and
Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979), p. 161.
See Blake, p. 22 ff.
Gattegno, Fragments of a Looking-Glass, p. 235.
Gattegno, Fragments of a Looking-Glass, p. 186.
"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.