A FEW WEEKS BEFORE his 29th birthday, the Reverend Charles Luttwidge Dodgson, alias Here he maintained a meticulous record of letters sent and received throughout the remaining 37 years of his life. The last numbered letter was 98,721.He also kept a register of the correspondence which he conducted as curator of the senior common room at Christ Church, Oxford, but neither of these letter registers has survived. We cannot tell exactly how many letters he wrote, nor was there any known register for the first 29 years of his life.
Yet one fact is clear: Dodgson was as prolific as a letter writer as he was as an author, and his letters give a wonderful insight into his mind. To a friend he once wrote, "Life seems to go in letter-writing, and I'm beginning to think that the proper definition of "Man" is "an animal that writes letters.""
The Letters of Lewis Carroll is the product of 20 years' dedicated research by its editor, Morton N. Cohen, assisted by Roger Lancelyn Green. During that period Cohen amassed copies of over 4000 letters and chose 1305 for publication. Dodgson's "public" letters - to the press, to his publishers, to his illustrators, and to Henry Savile Clarke, who adapted Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the stage - form four separate categories for future publication, one hopes under the same editorship.
Sadly, only four letters survive from the first 19 years of Dodgson's life. Several are extant from 1851 onwards, but the numbers only accelerate from the mid-1860s, when he began to find fame as an author.
The most important of Dodgson's child friends were Alice Liddell, heroine of his immortal Alice books, and her sisters, Lorina and Edith, who were daughters of Dr. H. G. Liddell, dean of Christ Church. After an enigmatic quarrel, probably about Alice's growing attachment to him, Mrs. Liddell insisted that all his letters be destroyed. The earliest extant letter to Alice is dated 1883, two decades after the famous river expedition when Alice's Adventures were first told.
The quality of what perished in the deanery wastepaper basket can be imagined from countless epistles to other children. Often the jokes deal with terms of endearment and modes of address. Agnes Hull was "My own Aggie" or "My Agg own ie." She was also "My east-red Aggie" in a letter ending "With "evol" to your sisters ("evol" is short for "evolution"), I remain your vin-log friend ("vin" is a French allusion to my favourite beverage: "log" alludes to my condition after partaking of it.)" To Mary Forshall he wrote, "My dear May, I have only time to send you with this my love and a ki [Turn] [Over] "a kind remembrance" of course I meant."
As time progressed, Dodgson cultivated the friendship of numerous young women of marriageable age. There are many examples of his letters to them, some serious, some lighthearted. To Kitty Savile Clarke he wrote, "Really, really, what is the world coming to! That a young lady, not more than 24, should write to a gentleman, not less than 25, and sign herself "your loving little friend"! I really cannot express how shocked I am. I have looked all through the dictionary, and couldn't find any words that were strong enough - till I came to "Z", and then I gave it us as a bad job, because you know there are so few words beginning with "Z"."
It is impossible to read The Letters of Lewis Carroll without increased affection and respect for this shy Oxford don. That Dodgson could be persnickety is clear; yet he made an overwhelming effort to do the right thing in all matters. His generosity, of which there are only hints in his manuscript diaries, is demonstrated time and time again in the letters. He was benefactor not only to his family, but to countless friends and acquaintances. Books were bought, holidays paid for, train tickets given with a delicacy which could not offend the recipient. He often canvassed acquaintances for him in finding work, etc.; for people fallen on $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE $&)Continued on page 3 > $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE $&)Continued from page 1> hard times. To one friend in debt who had a wife and eight children but no job, he made a nominal loan of 419 pounds, 7 shillings. "I am to have a Bill of Sale on his furniture, thus saving it from all risk of being seized by other creditors," he wrote.
Among the most interesting letters in the selcections are those which deal with Dodgson's drawings and photographs of nude children. None of them explains why he gave up photography in 1880 so suddenly, though a letter dated 1 July 1881 to Mrs. Henderson, whose children posed for him often indicates that there was gossip, which her daughter heard. Significantly, Mrs. Henderson would have been prepared to let the sessions continue.
The fine nude photograph of Beatice Hatch copied in watercolor by Anne Lydia Bond and reproduced both in the letters and in the forthcoming Lewis Carroll, Photographer of Children: Four Nude Studies (The Rosenbach Foundation/Potter. 31 pp. $10) indicates that Dodgson's nude child photography possessed both charm and delicacy. It is one of 104 fine illustrations, many of them rare and previously unpublished.
The Letters of Lewis Carroll is the result of immaculate scholarship by its editor and his associate, and readers will gain immense pleasure from these gems from Dodgson's mailbag. CAPTION: Picture 1, Dodgson's photograph of Beatrice Hatch; Picture 2, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) at 25; Picture 3, Alice Liddell (from "Letters")