Legacy of Lewis Carroll

A series of afternoon talks at the Surrey History Centre in Woking mounted by the Lewis Carroll Society. Part of a Lewis Carroll weekend.

Woking is one of those places one passes through on the train, but never visits. It is easy to see why. I have seen more derelict town centres, for example Farnborough and Aldershot, but I do not think I have ever visited a place as depressing as Woking. I had visions of the resident population committing mass suicide.

I had not a clue where the venue was, and it did not help that Surrey County Council in an act of crass stupidity, removed that day the information from their website. I did eventually find directions for arriving on foot, only they were completely wrong! I walked up and down through the depressing town centre three times realising that I was hopelessly lost without a clue where I was going. There were signs, but they pointed anywhere and everywhere but the Surrey History Centre. If in doubt ask a cycle shop, which is what I did, and I am pleased to say they put me on the right track and I did eventually find the venue, but not helped by the lack of names on the roads and few buildings having street numbers.

The talks were not well organised, poor speakers, bad sound system. Not even a list of speakers and the topic of their talk. Nothing more designed to bore the pants off you than a speaker reading from notes. If you know your subject you should be able to talk about it with enthusiasm. Nothing more annoying than a bad sound system, and speakers using it when they are far clearer and audible when they speak unaided. The slide projections were too small for the size of the room and washed out by bright sunlight outside as no one thought to draw the blinds.

Better facilities would have been available had the Parish Centre at St Nicolas Church in Guildford been used!

The worst speaker was an American who droned on from her script, made worse by the poor sound system. I had difficulty understanding a word she was saying and I was not the only one.

But, I always make the best of what is on offer and this what I gleaned from a variety of speakers.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally for reading by friends and family. It was presented to Alice Liddell as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, It was illustrated by Lewis Carroll. It was published by Macmillan (1865) illustrations by John Tenniel (who was a political cartoonist). It cost six shillings. Quite a high cost and a cheaper People’s Edition was published which remained in print until the 1960s.

When the copyright of the Mcmillan edition expired, rival publishers jumped on the Alice bandwagon, but they could not use the Tenniel illustrations which were still in copyright and so had alternative illustrations.

Through the Looking-Glass was the sequel, again published by Mcmillan.

Alice in Wonderland, as it is commonly referred to, has never been out of print, and is the most widely published book after the Bible.

Lewis Carroll has introduced a number of words and phrases into the English language, for example ‘chortle’ and ‘curiouser and curiouser’. He invented portmanteau words, that is words derived from two or more existing words, for example mimsy from miserable and flimsy.

Whilst in common usage when I was young, I assume because used by older generations, the words and phrases have now all but disappeared from the English language, at least from common everyday use. The English language is poorer for their loss.

For reasons not explained, Alice is a favourite of science fiction and crime writers, either in the title or the plot. Many examples were given.

Many parodies have been published, though it seemed to be stretching the point if many were parodies beyond the title. Collectors of Alice memorabilia have to have every single copy, including any reprints and subsequent editions. One, by George Bernard Shaw, itself parodied, I could not see was a parody at all, at least from the title or book cover, but maybe I was missing something blindingly obvious.

There are several hundred Alice plays, though many of these have not got beyond the imagination of their authors.

Jenny Woolf author of a recent biography of Lewis Carroll, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll (Haus Publishing, 2010), was asked to talk on his appearance. Of all the things that could have been said of Lewis Carroll, his writing, his life, his character, this was the least interesting aspect of his life, especially as little is known. He was slightly asymmetrical in appearance, he stammered, he had a ramrod back (but was this not trues of all Victorians?), he was physically fit and enjoyed long walks, he was liked by children but not so liked by adults who found him remote and stand-offish, he did not sport a bushy beard (cf Charles Darwin), he was always immaculate dressed, he did not like his image being recorded, either by photography (he himself was a keen photographer) or by sketch or painting, when one of his young friends drew a sketch of him, he turned red of face, tore it out of her hands, ripped it up and threw it in the fire.

Note: The following day, Mary Alexander, referring to the journals of Charles Dodgson, dismissed it as a myth he did not mix in adult company. Such is the pitfall if in writing a biography you do not stick to primary sources, but to do so is hard work. [see Life of Lewis Carroll in Guildford]

The highlights of the afternoon were White Rabbit before the interlude and a talk on the journals Lewis Carroll kept.

Any age reinterprets Alice through the lens of its own experience. In the 1960s it was the acid drug culture. Surely Lewis Carroll was on one big drug trip. Think Aldous Huxley, Wilkie Collins, Sherlock Holmes, Carlos Castaneda.

White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane was played, a classic sixties rock number which sends shivers down my spine, the lyrics illustrated with Alice drawings that reinforced the not very subliminal drug message. It was a brilliant montage and I have asked that it be put on YouTube.

And no, those who have researched the background of the Rev Charles Dodgson, can find no evidence of a secret Lewis Carroll drug culture.

Edward Wakeling with a replica of the first Charles Dodgson journal

Edward Wakeling with a replica of the first Charles Dodgson journal

The Rev Charles Dodgson kept a journal. In it he recorded his every day thoughts. On his death he was up to Journal 13. They were numbered sequentially. Four are missing, pages are missing from the existing journals! Who was the villain, what were they trying to hide. This was the subject of the last speaker, and such was the interest and his enthusiastic presentation, he held everyone (including myself) spellbound.

On his death, the Charles Dodgson estate was administered by his two brothers, one of who was out of the country. A nephew of Charles Dodgson wished to write an account of the life of his uncle and he worked from all thirteen journals, therefore we know they existed then. On the death of the brother of Charles Dodgson, the management of the Charles Dodgson estate passed to the son of the brother, ie the nephew of Charles Dodgson. The nephew got so sick and tired of handling inquiries on Lewis Carroll that he decided, helped by his sister (niece of Charles Dodgson), to publish an edited version of the journals. Typescripts were drawn up.

The journals were known to have existed on the death of Lewis Carroll. Were known to have existed in 1914 as his brother quoted from all thirteen. They were known to have existed in 1930 and 1932 as they were seen by a journalist who visited the nephew, were cited in correspondence.

Who therefore destroyed four journals, who ripped or cut out ten pages from the nine remaining journals? The nephew is known to have been sensitive to personal and intimate information in the journals, and as the journals went missing whilst in his custody, the finger of suspicion points at him. It has previously pointed at his sister, but as it was she who took her role as archivist seriously, expressed concern at censorship and worked diligently to get the journals published, it seems unlikely that she was the culprit.

I was kindly given copies of the Lewis Carroll Review and Bandersnatch (the newsletter of the Lewis Carroll Society). What can you fill up a journal and newsletter with many years after the death of a writer? Very little and I could feel the bottom of the barrel being scraped. Interesting tidbits, Michael Corner has written medieval-style Alice songs, maybe interesting to hear but no contact details (other than for the score so maybe never recorded or performed), Jasmine Becker-Griffith has apparently interesting Alice pictures on the net (I have yet to check), Oxford Storypods (I assume a play on ipod) has produced an apparently worth-listening-to audio book Alice in Wonderland & Nonsense Verse and Prose (but it is mp3 on CD, cuts down number of CDs but tough if your CD player cannot play it), a rather savage and badly written review of The Mystery of Lewis Carroll (by one of the day’s speakers).

The meeting was a special Lewis Carroll Society event and I was possibly the only non-member present. Apart from being kindly given the aforementioned journal and newsletter, I was invited to St Mary’s Church in Guildford, where the Rev Charles Dodgson occasionally preached. Something new I had only learnt in the last few days. It was a necessary requirement to be ordained to be a fellow of the Oxford College where the Rev Charles Dodgson taught. At St Mary’s there was to be a talk followed by the morning Sunday service.

Also see

The Real Lewis Carroll

Life of Lewis Carroll in Guildford

Tai Chi in the Jabberwocky Maze

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5 Responses to “Legacy of Lewis Carroll”

  1. Michael O'Connor Says:

    I am sorry you did not particularly enjoy the series of talks at the Surrey History Centre, Brian, especially as you seem to have acquired a great deal of knowledge from them. There were, in fact, 8 non-members of the Lewis Carroll Society in attendance altogether, and as far as I am aware, the other 7 all felt the time well spent. The aim of the event was to give a series of short and disparate lectures that would appeal to both Carrollian experts and enthusiasts, and the general feeling amongst those there is that this aim was successfully achieved. The speakers included some of the most prestigious and knowledgeable academics in the Carrollian world, all of whom had given their time freely and travelled to Surrey (including from America) at their own expense; they are all extremely busy people and I think it unreasonable to expect any of them to have learned by rote their talks in addition to researching, writing and delivering them.
    I am also sorry to hear that you did not think highly of the Review or of Bandersnatch, particularly as I edit the latter. Contrary to what you suggest, there is a constant flow of fresh material about Carroll that the Society addresses via these and other publications/meetings, and there is no barrel scraping involved: as a matter of fact, I frequently have to omit items due to lack of space.
    You clearly have a great interest in Carroll, and strong opinions. Perhaps you might care to join the Society, where you could debate these with the rest of us, and perhaps change your views slightly?

    • keithpp Says:

      I did not say I did not enjoy! The disappointment was that the afternoon at the Surrey History Centre was poorly organised, the speakers who used the sound system (which was not necessary for such a small room) were all but inaudible. If members know their stuff (and that came across) then they do not need to read from notes. I can do that myself!

      I was told by one of your own members that Saturday afternoon was poorly organised compared with your other events during the weekend. One of you members had even greater difficuly than I undestanding the speakers, and as one of the members said to me he felt very sorry for those who had travelled a long way and English was not there first language.

      I have also noted that Edward Wakeling was excellent.

  2. Michael O'Connor Says:

    My apologies. Keith. I called you Brian by mistake. Nobody’s perfect!

  3. Valerie Says:

    Good morning Keith,
    I would like to tell you how surprised I am after reading your article, because I attended this event as well and your description doesn’t correspond at all to what I’ve seen of it.
    First of all, I am not English and was only there on holidays. I also have hearing problems. Because of these two reasons, if the sound system had been bad, it would have disturbed me a lot. On the contrary, I understood everything and found that all the speakers spoke very clearly, even the American ones while in my country we mostly study British English. I talked to a French man, a Japanese woman and a Finnish one there, and they all enjoyed the talks as well. I didn’t see anything wrong with the size of the screen. We saw everything very well, so a bigger size wouldn’t have added anything. It was a conference about Charles L. Dodgson, a man who liked everything to be simple, not an American movie in 3D! I didn’t notice any sun reflection either but if it disturbed you so much, why didn’t you close the curtains? And if you had asked anyone from the Lewis Carroll Society, they would have been pleased to give you the paper with the names of the speakers.
    As for criticizing the speakers who had notes, I suppose you would also have criticized Lewis Carroll himself for having notes, and for stammering in spite of them. So if you can do better than the genius, good for you. What a shame you didn’t offer to talk for free like all these people who even paid for their own journey and accommodation. But it’s always time for you to become a member of the Lewis Carroll Society and offer them your services.
    You consider that Charles L. Dodgson’s physical appearance and the image he had of it is the least interesting part of his life. On the contrary, I think it is one of the most important one, as the image someone gives to others and has of himself is what forms one’s personality. This may be what made him more at ease in front of children. As a consequence, this may be what made him write such brilliant books for children and be interested in how to make people look at their best in his photographs.
    Contrary to you, I found the event extremely well organized. We were welcomed by a very friendly and helpful staff who always answered very patiently to all our questions. Tasty sandwiches and drinks were even offered to everyone! I think it would not have been a good idea to do that in the parish centre of a church as it was not a religious event. The Surrey History Centre was the most appropriate venue to show where the Dodgson family has chosen to protect the precious manuscripts written by or to Lewis Carroll, as well as his drawings and photos still in their possession. This is the most important place to discover for someone who wants to know more about Lewis Carroll.
    You were kindly offered “Bandersnatch” for free and you dare writing that one of its articles is “savage and badly written”, while you are proud enough to publish on Internet an “article” with such words as “an act of crass stupidity”! I personally enjoyed reading this review a lot and am proud to own a signed copy of one of the excellent books written by its author (I had it signed after the talks). When you become worldly famous like him, you’ll have your word to say. But it would mean that you would know what hard work is, and then I don’t think you would keep criticizing everything and everyone as you do. As you say it yourself, “Bandersnatch” is just a newsletter about all the events related to Lewis Carroll. The Lewis Carroll Society also publishes a journal called “The Carrollian”, which articles, written by the best specialists in the world, are always quoted in PhD theses and in books of reference about Lewis Carroll.
    You believe that nothing new can be said about Lewis Carroll after so many years, but as Mr Wakeling’s talk showed, there is still unpublished material that could put into question all the biographies written about him in the past.
    As a postgraduate who is studying Lewis Carroll for the third year, I think that this afternoon was of excellent quality.

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