The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll/Chapter X
Mr. Dodgson's fondness for children—Miss Isabel Standen—Puzzles—"Me and Myself"—A double acrostic—"Father William"—Of drinking healths—Kisses by post—Tired in the face—The unripe plum—Eccentricities—"Sylvie and Bruno"—"Mr. Dodgson is going on well."
THIS chapter and the next will deal with Mr. Dodgson's friendships with children. It would have been impossible to arrange them in chronological sequence in the earlier part of this book, and the fact that they exhibit a very important and distinct side of his nature seems to justify me in assigning them a special and individual position.
For the contents of these two chapters, both my readers and myself owe a debt of gratitude to those child-friends of his, without whose ever-ready help this book could never have been written.
From very early college days began to emerge that beautiful side of Lewis Carroll's character which afterwards was to be, next to his fame as an author, the one for which he was best known—his attitude towards children, and the strong attraction they had for him. I shall attempt to point out the various influences which led him in this direction; but if I were asked for one comprehensive word wide enough to explain this tendency of his nature, I would answer unhesitatingly—Love. My readers will remember a beautiful verse in "Sylvie and Bruno"; trite though it is, I cannot forbear to quote it—
Say, whose is the skill that paints valley and hill,
Like a picture so fair to the sight?
That flecks the green meadow with sunshine and shadow,
Till the little lambs leap with delight?
'Tis a secret untold to hearts cruel and cold,
Though 'tis sung by the angels above,
In notes that ring clear for the ears that can hear,
And the name of the secret is Love!
That "secret"—an open secret for him—explains this side of his character. As he read everything in its light, so it is only in its light that we can properly understand him. I think that the following quotation from a letter to the Rev. F. H. Atkinson, accompanying a copy of "Alice" for his little daughter Gertrude, sufficiently proves the truth of what I have just stated:—
Many thanks to Mrs. Atkinson and to you for the sight of the tinted photograph of your Gertrude. As you say, the picture speaks for itself, and I can see exactly what sort of a child she is, in proof of which I send her my love and a kiss herewith. It is possible I may be the first (unseen) gentleman from whom she has had so ridiculous a message; but I can't say she is the first unseen child to whom I have sent one! I think the most precious message of the kind I ever got from a child I never saw (and never shall see in this world) was to the effect that she liked me when she read about Alice, "but please tell him, whenever I read that Easter letter he sent me I do love him!" She was in a hospital, and a lady friend who visited there had asked me to send the letter to her and some other sick children.
And now as to the secondary causes which attracted him to children. First, I think children appealed to him because he was pre-eminently a teacher, and he saw in their unspoiled minds the best material for him to work upon. In later years one of his favourite recreations was to lecture at schools on logic; he used to give personal attention to each of his pupils, and one can well imagine with what eager anticipation the children would have looked forward to the visits of a schoolmaster who knew how to make even the dullest subjects interesting and amusing.
Again, children appealed to his æsthetic faculties, for he was a keen admirer of the beautiful in every form. Poetry, music, the drama, all delighted him, but pictures more than all put together. I remember his once showing me "The Lady with the Lilacs," which Arthur Hughes had painted for him, and how he dwelt with intense pleasure on the exquisite contrasts of colour which it contained—the gold hair of a girl standing out against the purple of lilac-blossom. But with those who find in such things as these a complete satisfaction of their desire for the beautiful he had no sympathy; for no imperfect representations of life could, for him, take the place of life itself, life as God has made it—the babbling of the brook, the singing of the birds, the laughter and sweet faces of the children. And yet, recognising, as he did, what Mr. Pater aptly terms "the curious perfection of the human form," in man, as in nature, it was the soul that attracted him more than the body. His intense admiration, one might almost call it adoration, for the white innocence and uncontaminated spirituality of childhood emerges most clearly in "Sylvie and Bruno." He says very little of the personal beauty of his heroine; he might have asked, with Mr. Francis Thompson—
How can I tell what beauty is her dole.
Who cannot see her countenance for her soul?
So entirely occupied is he with her gentleness, her pity, her sincerity, and her love.
Again, the reality of children appealed strongly to the simplicity and genuineness of his own nature. I believe that he understood children even better than he understood men and women; civilisation has made adult humanity very incomprehensible, for convention is as a veil which hides the divine spark that is in each of us, and so this strange thing has come to be, that the imperfect mirrors perfection more completely than the perfected, that we see more of God in the child than in the man.
And in those moments of depression of which he had his full share, when old age seemed to mock him with all its futility and feebleness, it was the thought that the children still loved him which nerved him again to continue his life-work, which renewed his youth, so that to his friends he never seemed an old man. Even the hand of death itself only made his face look more boyish—the word is not too strong. "How wonderfully young your brother looks!" were the first words the doctor said, as he returned from the room where Lewis Carroll's body lay, to speak to the mourners below. And so he loved children because their friendship was the true source of his perennial youth and unflagging vigour. This idea is expressed in the following poem—an acrostic, which he wrote for a friend some twenty years ago:—
Around my lonely hearth, to-night,
Ghostlike the shadows wander:
Now here, now there, a childish sprite,
Earthborn and yet as angel bright,
Seems near me as I ponder.
Gaily she shouts: the laughing air
Echoes her note of gladness—
Or bends herself with earnest care
Round fairy-fortress to prepare
Grim battlement or turret-stair—
In childhood's merry madness!
New raptures still hath youth in store
Age may but fondly cherish
Half-faded memories of yore—
Up, craven heart! repine no more!
Love stretches hands from shore to shore:
Love is, and shall not perish!
His first child-friend, so far as I know, was Miss Alice Liddell, the little companion whose innocent talk was one of the chief pleasures of his early life at Oxford, and to whom he told the tale that was to make him famous. In December, 1885, Miss M. E. Manners presented him with a little volume, of which she was the authoress, "Aunt Agatha Ann and Other Verses," and which contained a poem (which I quoted in Chapter VI.), about "Alice." Writing to acknowledge this gift, Lewis Carroll said:—
Permit me to offer you my sincere thanks for the very sweet verses you have written about my dream-child (named after a real Alice, but none the less a dream-child) and her Wonderland. That children love the book is a very precious thought to me, and, next to their love, I value the sympathy of those who come with a child's heart to what I have tried to write about a child's thoughts. Next to what conversing with an angel might be—for it is hard to imagine it—comes, I think, the privilege of having a real child's thoughts uttered to one. I have known some few real children (you have too, I am sure), and their friendship is a blessing and a help in life.It is interesting to note how in "Sylvie and Bruno" his idea of the thoughts of a child has become deeper and more spiritual. Yet in the earlier tale, told "all in a golden afternoon," to the plash of oars and the swish of a boat through Page:Collingwood - Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll.djvu/390 Page:Collingwood - Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll.djvu/391
(From a photograph by Lewis Carroll.)
nine out of ten, I think, of my child-friendships get ship-wrecked at the critical point, "where the stream and river meet," and the child-friends, once so affectionate, become uninteresting acquaintances, whom I have no wish to set eyes on again.
These friendships usually began all very much in the same way. A chance meeting on the sea-shore, in the street, at some friend's house, led to conversation; then followed a call on the parents, and after that all sorts of kindnesses on Lewis Carroll's part, presents of books, invitations to stay with him at Oxford, or at Eastbourne, visits with him to the theatre. For the amusement of his little guests he kept a large assortment of musical-boxes, and an organette which had to be fed with paper tunes. On one occasion he ordered about twelve dozen of these tunes "on approval," and asked one of the other dons, who was considered a judge of music, to come in and hear them played over. In addition to these attractions there were clock-work bears, mice, and frogs, and games and puzzles in infinite variety.
One of his little friends. Miss Isabel Standen, has sent me the following account of her first meeting with him:—
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