For the general reader, the humorous verse scattered throughout the two volumes of Sylvie And Bruno may be its chief attraction. But from the student of Lewis Carroll, this elaborate failure, which occupied him, on and off, for twenty years of his life, demands a little more attention. Even the least successful productions of genius have an interest above the ordinary; the confused patchwork of Sylvie And Bruno conceals what was in some ways a strikingly original experiment, though one beyond his powers.
The nucleus of Sylvie And Bruno is to be found in a short tale, 'Bruno's Revenge', contributed by Carroll to Aunt Judy's Magazine, edited by Mrs Gatty, in 1867. This fairytale forms the greater part of Chapters 14 and 15 of the book. He told more chapters of it to the children at Hatfield on visits to Lord Salisbury in 1873 and 1875. By the following year he was looking out for an illustrator to succeed Tenniel.
'I should much like to write one more children's book', he informed Macmillans, 'before all writing-power leaves me.'
Unfortunately that supremely lucid 'writing-power' of Dodgson's did begin to disintegrate rather rapidly as he became increasingly absorbed by college business and by his miscellaneous scientific and artistic interests. Sylvie And Bruno was compiled from a mass of material accumulated over many years. Dodgson determined to break away from the pattern of his previous dream-tales, but had no clear idea of how to do it. Unlike the Alice books, Sylvie And Bruno never advanced systematically. Failure could have been predicted.
The most serious fault, besides its shapelessness, was that in Sylvie And Bruno Dodgson the didactic moralist overwhelmed Dodgson the artist. When he allowed himself to follow the course of his fairy-tale, or to pursue some entertaining by-way of fantasy in prose or verse, he was still recognizably the Lewis Carroll of former days; but the attempt to display his old talent within the setting of a conventionally 'uplifting' society novel proved fatal to the book as a whole. Harry Furniss's illustrations faithfully reflected this dilemma. Worse still, the boy Bruno spoke in a deplorable convention of baby-talk that had been happily avoided in Alice. And the book grew impossibly long. The publication of Sylvie And Bruno in 1889 was not the end. In 1893 came Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, and each volume ran to four hundred pages. Moreover, they were both prefaced by rambling apologetic addresses such as a clergyman might make from the steps of the chancel, involving good works and moral reflections of every kind.
It is possible, then, to pick out the interpolated songs and poems, or to read the fantastic passages on the 'Outlandish Watch' or the visit to Dogland, with pleasure; it requires an unusually patient and sympathetic reader to follow the story from beginning to end. yet the strangely incoherent compilation is somehow symbolical of the hidden conflicts of Dodgson and of the Victorian era in which he lived. The element of experiment in the construction of the book has its place in literary history. Dodgson introduced his 'fairies' into human situations and postulated that man may go through three stages in relation to the supernatural — the ordinary state of 'no consciousness'; the mixed or 'eerie' state, in which he is conscious both of his own surroundings and of supernatural presences; and a form of trance or dream-state. His attempt to sustain a narrative on these distinct planes is, not surprisingly, difficult to follow.
Maeterlinck and Barrio later handled similar material more successfully in the theatre with musical assistance; and perhaps the work of Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf sometimes suggests the same line of experiment, explored with different methods.
Sylvie And Bruno was Carroll's last attempt at imaginative literature on a large scale. He was greatly occupied with games and puzzles towards the close of his life. His last book, Part I of Symbolic Logic, appeared in 1896; it is pleasant to record that it went through four editions within a year. The exploitation of the Alice books in their various guises, translations and adaptations, still kept him busy, and he made a number of small verbal changes for a new edition in 1897. (Mr Stanley Godman is apparently the first to have noted these "The Times, 27July 1957). During his later years he suffered from intermittent ill-health; he was feeling the effect of cumulative strain, brought on by the rigorous discipline of his life and by continual overwork. At Christmas, 1897, he was busily engaged on Part 2 of Symbolic Logic when he caught a feverish chill which turned to bronchitis. He died at 'The Chestnuts', his sisters' detached red-brick house near the Castle at Guildford, on 14 January 1898.