23 January, 2006

Sylvie and Bruno

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
'A fact so dread,' he faintly said,
'Extinguishes all hope!'
I've just finished Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno (1889-93), the first novel I've read for the first time in about two years. Everyone knows Alice in Wonderland—but how many have come across the work that Carroll considered his masterpiece? It was panned by contemporary critics and saw little 20th-century interest, although it contains many of the same elements as Alice: nonsense poetry, hallucinogenic realities, wordplay and logicplay, an idealized heroine. . . even Harry Furniss' illustrations resemble Tenniel's work for Alice.

The reason for its unpopularity, I suspect, is its uneasy position between the first soupçons of Modernism and the vestiges of high Victorian sentimentalism. And it is revoltingly sentimental; in one scene, the eponymous heroine stumbles on a dead hare:
"Come, my child," I said, trying to lead her away. "Wish good-bye to the poor hare, and come and look for blackberries."

"Good-bye, poor hare!" Sylvie obediently repeated, looking over her shoulder at it as we turned away. And then, all in a moment, her self-command gave way. Pulling her hand out of mine, she ran back to where the dead hare was lying, and flung herself down at its side in such an agony of grief as I could hardly have believed possible in so young a child.

"Oh, my darling, my darling!" she moaned, over and over again. "And GOD meant your life to be so beautiful!"

Sometimes, but always keeping her face hidden on the ground, she would reach out one little hand, to stroke the poor dead thing, and then once more bury her face in her hands, and sob as if her heart would break.
A modern, cynical reader such as myself is transfixed by such a passage: we might as well be watching sub-Saharan mating-rituals, so alien is this type of writing to today's mind. In fact, the entire book serves as a safari of late Victorian mores and anxieties: a fixation upon the innocence of children, a morbid obsession with death, the encroachment of scientific atheism on the Anglican Church, the niceties of formal etiquette, a Christian faith centred around charity and love, mockery of pompous academics, theological doubt, the post-Romantic fascination with the English countryside (itself a yearning for Edenic paradise and second childhood, thus related to the first item here), a fierce ethical conflict between stoicism and florid emotionality, socialism among the bourgeois, deep curiosity about the human mind, the light wit of genteel society, and a delight in petty magics and folk-belief. It is no coincidence that contemporary works included The Time Machine, Flatland, The Golden Bough, A Picture of Dorian Gray, William James' Principles of Psychology, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Three Men in a Boat, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Uprose that Pig and rushed, full whack,
Against the ruined Pump:
Rolled over like an empty sack,
And settled down upon his back,
While all his bones at once went "Crack!"
It was a fatal jump.
The nonsense-poems are among the darker parts of the book, very often treating death, bitter japery and failures of communication, stylised often to the point of apparent meaninglessness. These elements cut across the book's narrative rhythms, subverting its ponderous pace with all the charm of its titular sprites. The plot weaves back and forth between a mocked England and a world of pure fantasy, between antimacassar melodrama and dream-sequences, cutting rather suddenly and without warning—the very first line, in fact, begins in mid-sentence, anticipating Finnegans Wake.

And yet the novel is filled with the most powerful sense of desperation: its human characters are saved from misery, anxiety and death only by the intervention, the grace, of its heroes, the fairy-children Sylvie and Bruno, whose abiding love for mankind provides the sole impetus for the light which pervades the climax of each half. But this spiritual and physical light never quite drowns out the mortal darkness that encompasses the rest of the narrator's world. The spectre of Atheism is only half snuffed-out by the end; doubt has been irrevocably established.

Further pieces—on nymphets and taste, thought-experiments, and nonsense-language in Sylvie and Bruno.

Meanwhile, John Anderson aka. "Goofy" comments, favourably.


Anonymous said...

See also John Crowley's "Little, Big," which makes use of Sylvie and Bruno in somewhat heterodox fashion.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ah, I haven't read it, though the name is familiar.

Uke Xensen said...

I'm not sure which edition you read. The Dover edition contains only the first part. At Mercury House we published the whole thing. My introduction to that edition is on-line here

Conrad H. Roth said...

I started with the Dover, then I realised that there wasn't a second volume and switched to the Mercury House edition. I'm very glad you made the text available, though I didn't like the modern illustrations and would like to have seen Furniss' work for 'Sylvie and Bruno Concluded'. Interesting site, BTW: you seem to have had your fingers in many pies.