I was first handed Sylvie and Bruno when I was an eager kid just coming off of Alice in Wonderland, certain—certain—that this omnibus edition of Lewis Carroll, which the cover said contained everything that Carroll ever wrote (which turned out to be true; it even included various mathematical puzzles) would be sure to have lots and lots of jokes and funny conversations and funny poems and would be the best thing ever.
As I have noted in these rereads, my expectations are frequently wrong.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have something to say about it and its sequel Sylvie and Bruno Completed.
First, to sum up the books for those who have been fortunate enough to miss them entirely. The books intertwine two different narratives, one set in the real world, the other more or less in fairyland, which Carroll sometimes calls Elfland. In the fairy part of the story, the Sub Warden, his not overly bright wife, and the Chancellor, who live in a country on the borders of Elfland, have been conspiring to raise the Sub Warden to the position of Emperor, something easy to do since the Warden who should be stopping such things is frankly not all that focused on what’s going on and is therefore easy to trick. The Sub Warden’s wife, the Lady, is delighted by this; she also delights in her son, Uggug, a literary ancestor of Harry Potter’s cousin Dudley Dursley, only less pleasant and more boring. Also there is a Professor, who has to give a lecture, and an Other Professor, who is difficult to find, and a Gardener who sings.
All of this makes life miserable for sickeningly sweet little Sylvie and her ungrammatical little brother Bruno so they take off for Elfland, stopping to talk to some dogs in Doggee along the way. And that’s pretty much all you need to know since after this setup, it’s entirely forgotten until the end of the second book.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the narrator, who apparently has some sort of heart condition, encounters the sweet and gentle and very boring Lady Muriel (who more or less resembles Sylvie), her father the Earl (because aristocrats), and the two men in love with her: the narrator’s friend Dr. Arthur Forrester and Eric Lindon. This plot is even more boring, and unfortunately, never gets forgotten. It does, however, get frequently interrupted with criticisms of British manners, discussions of religion and morality, critiques of high church services, and more, including many things that ought to be interesting but aren’t. Also, his heart condition has apparently made him condescending towards women (I say “him” because the other characters never approach his level.) Meanwhile, Sylvie and Bruno show up in this world as adorably cute little child fairies that most of you will want to have run over by the nearest steam train.
Only the narrator is fully aware of both stories. Except for Sylvie and Bruno, the fairy characters seem completely unaware of the real world (the space alien who is aware doesn’t show up until the sequel). Indeed, as he notes with some bitterness, the characters in the fairy world often aren’t always aware of him, and his role in the realistic half of the book is just to be a fourth wheel. He is, indeed, so superfluous to the plots that he is recording that although everyone always seems glad to see him and calls him a dear friend, the closest thing he gets to a name is “Mister Sir,” given to him by Bruno.
This, though, isn’t the problem, or, as I should say, problems. One, Carroll abruptly shifts from one world to the other often without sense or reason or letting the reader know what’s going on. This is meant, I think, to convey the thin line between reality and dream, and to accent the narrator’s confusion—since he himself is often not at all sure what is going on. In practice, it comes across as muddled and annoying—mostly because the tones of the two narratives are so completely different.
Which brings us to the second problem: Carroll seems to have no idea who his audience is. The book begins sounding like a fairy tale, and later in the narrative Carroll directly addresses his child readers with the word, “Child,” followed by instructions on just how to catch a fairy. But several other parts of the narrative are distinctly aimed at an adult audience, including the criticisms of High Church services, the manners of English aristocrats, hunting (a passage that apparently caused some consternation when the book was first published), very tedious discourses on philosophy and religion, and, oh, yes, the boring love triangle. As a kid I found it baffling and boring and couldn’t figure out why this stuff kept interrupting the better parts; as a serious grown up reader with an interest in Victorian society, I couldn’t find the rest of the novel interesting—or frequently even intelligible.
All of this creates yet another problem: in many cases, Carroll seems to forget what he is writing and where he is in the story. This might be deliberate, but that doesn’t quite explain apparent slip-ups such as the way the narrator suddenly knows Lady Muriel’s name before anyone has brought it up; the narration suddenly telling us Sylvie’s thoughts even though the narrator has no way of knowing what these thoughts are, not to mention this is distracting. Other bits leap from here to there without much meaning or connection or recollection of what happened earlier: when the narrator first encounters Sylvie and Bruno in the real world, for instance, he—and the narration—seem to have no idea that Sylvie and Bruno have already appeared in the book. Not to mention that Sylvie and Bruno were specifically heading to Elfland/Fairyland, not the real world, and were very specifically not really truly fairies except somehow now they are.
The narration explains away some of this, and the shifts between worlds, by suggesting that the narrator visits the fairy world whenever he is overcome by fatigue from his heart condition, and is so caught by it that he has problems distinguishing between reality and dream, a concept that almost, but not quite, works, not quite because the narration later blatantly rejects this concept by noting that no time passes for the guy in the fairy realm except when it does. Which is, to be sure, one of the tendencies of fairy lands==but it doesn’t work in a book that insists that it is logical.
Carroll later noted that he wrote the rest of the book in odd moments here and there, more or less jotting them down when he thought of scenes. This is all very well, but what Carroll blatantly forgot to do was to try to connect all of these odd moments.
The worst problem is Bruno, who speaks with an atrocious and frankly unbelievable accent combined with terrible grammar. Apparently Carroll thinks this is cute. It is not. This isn’t to say that the entire book is pointless. At one point, Bruno acts out bits of Shakespeare for a group of frogs.
(Pauses to think of other worthwhile moments)
(Never mind. I need to finish this post.)
Carroll, however, was enthusiastic enough to write a sequel for those who managed to plod through the first book. Sylvie and Bruno Concluded opens with him defending his spelling, at some length. (No. Really. It’s still better than most of the first book.) After this, he launches into a fairly tedious explanation for just how everything that I just complained about in the first book really worked and we were all just not good enough readers to understand. (Writers responding defensively to hostile reviews: not really a new thing.)
One genuine advantage of reading this book in the internet era is that the explanation in the ebook now contain links back to those scenes, allowing you to say, no, Carroll, this narrative method still sucks. This is followed by yet another defensive rant and an assurance that yes, yes, it’s perfectly ok to hunt tigers go tiger killers. None of this is particularly designed to get people into the book, but moving on.
After a couple of chapters featuring Sylvie and Bruno that are almost—brace yourself—amusing—the book alas moves back to tedious discussions of religion and arguably the most tedious discussion of a breakup, like, ever, and I realize there’s some stiff competition out there. This is about the end of the engagement between Lady Muriel and Eric which serves to warn readers to be brave: the triangle is back again, and it hasn’t improved.
Sylvie gains the power to turn people invisible or visible because Plot, and then steals a moment from one of Carroll’s earlier books when she makes most, but not all, of a dog invisible. I would have complained but this followed a long, long discussion of socialism and labor and good and evil, so I could only regard stealing from Alice as a major improvement.
The two fairy children also manage to cure a man of alcoholism—just how is not quite clear, but they are, after all, fairies—and do other Cute Things. The identification of Sylvie with Lady Muriel grows stronger, with the Narrator sometimes thinking that Muriel is Sylvie, or vice versa. What is slightly more disturbing is that the identification of her fiancé, Arthur, with Bruno, grows stronger, with the Narrator frequently feeling that when Muriel and Arthur talk to each other, they sound exactly like Sylvie and Bruno. On the one hand, eew, and on the bright side, well, Sylvie and Bruno do spend a lot of time kissing each other. Let us not linger on this thought. Especially since I’m not sure I agree with it: Muriel and Arthur spend a lot of time talking about Morality and Religion and Social Structure and other things I can’t really see either Sylvie or Bruno ever talking about.
And, when not being petulant, dreamy, pining and irritating, Arthur likes to argue with everyone, which does not make him the most enjoyable person to read about, especially since he’s only arguing to allow Carroll to pontificate once again about the problems in English society—though this does eventually lead to one of the very few enjoyable scenes among the adults, a dinner party where Arthur pretty much insults everybody.
And then, fortunately for everyone, Mein Herr shows up.
Apart from the confusing moment when the Narrator believes that Mein Herr is the Professor from Fairyland, except not, because the Professor would recognize him—confusing since it’s been chapters since we’re heard anything about the Professor, and the Professor would have no reason to remember the Narrator since the Narrator was invisible to the Professor for most of this—anyway, apart from that moment, Mein Herr is just hilariously wrong in every single way, mostly because he’s a space alien.
If you are wondering what on earth a space alien is doing in a serious work of social criticism with fairies, well, he’s there to criticize humanity, and by this point in the book, most readers will be more than happy to criticize humanity. After this, the space alien disappears, and then Carroll decides to end the book, and then he suddenly remembers that he totally forgot to end his original plot—the whole attempt by the Sub-Warden and his wife to take over Outland, not to mention the long promised Lecture from the Professor, and hastily adds a few chapters to cover that and add an implausible happy ending. The Professor’s Lecture, a lovely bit of nonsense, is one of the highlights of the book, but my suspicion is that most readers won’t reach it.
For all this, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded is a much better book than its predecessor: the transitions between the fairy world and the human world are much smoother; the parts set in the real world have some actual moments of humor, even when the space alien isn’t around. The Professor’s long awaited lecture, with Experiments, doubtless inspired by Carroll’s university experience, is almost a highlight. Which doesn’t mean that the plot problems are any less blatant. For instance, Carroll suddenly decides that he needs to kill off Arthur, at least temporarily, so all of a sudden a fever appears in the village which we’ve never heard of before so Arthur goes off to treat everybody and die only NOT REALLY (he’s kinda like the Jean Grey of Victorian fiction). Plus, the book continues to swing back and forth between scenes apparently aimed at child readers to abstruse conversations about religion.
A few things even seem stolen from Carroll’s earlier works—a dog that disappears leaving only a tail behind is rather reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat, and Bruno’s logical conversations and puns owe quite a bit to Wonderland and the land found through the Looking Glass. And in at least one case, Carroll makes a direct reference to another book—when the Professor starts to talk about a Boojum—though readers hoping to learn more about such dreadful creatures are doomed to disappointment.
This in turn just makes the books all that much more frustrating, since here and there I can catch glimpses of the zany, surreal humor of the Alice books. But even at their best moments, and there are few of those, the Sylvie and Bruno books never really hit those heights.
Why did Carroll create this twinned monstrosity? Well, it’s a guess on my part, but three things: one, he seems to have been inspired by the work of his friend George MacDonald, who had also slipped fairy tales into his serious adult novel Adela Cathcart, only more intelligibly. Two, he had many negative things to say about Victorian society, High Church services, and religion, and may have believed that the only way to ensure that these things were read was to put them in a book with fairies. Third—and the defensive opening to the second book suggests this was his main motivation: he honestly thought it was good. Authors have been very wrong about this before.
But I am less interested in why he wrote it, and instead how Sylvie and Bruno influenced children’s literature—especially next to the Alice books. Because, for two books that are currently little read (no one has even bothered to put part two up on Gutenberg yet) and rarely spoken of with praise, they did, as it turned out, have a certain influence, if a negative one.
It was threefold: one, after this (and to a much lesser extent Adela Cathcart, whose fairy tales could simply be lifted out of their framing story) very few authors attempted to write books aimed at both a child and adult audience. Certainly, a few authors would add things to children’s books that went well over the head of child readers (a technique also happily used by the Muppets) but they would not attempt to follow the example of mingling social commentary about adult manners with stories of magical six year olds.
On a similar note, after this, children’s authors rarely attempted to balance novels set half in a fairyland, half in the real world. Authors could not quite give up the thrill of having a magical creature play in the real world—talking cats, magical creatures who could grant wishes, and fairies continued to make regular appearances, but when they did, they stayed with the children in the real world. On the other side, children generally went to fairy worlds within the first two chapters, returning home only in the final chapter—assuming they did return home.
And three, the experiment of having elderly people (the narrator of this book is apparently around 70) travel alone to fairylands was dropped for most children’s books. Which wasn’t to say they never came—Cap’n Bill, for one, came with Trot to Oz—but always with a kid.
This might not have been the legacy Carroll wanted for these books, which he hoped and thought would be masterpieces. But sometimes, even a negative legacy can be a legacy. By creating two masterpieces set in fairylands, and two distinctly not masterpieces set in both fairylands and the real world, Carroll set a pattern many others would follow.
Thanks to some library issues, the next planned reread is going to be a bit delayed, so since we’re already chatting about Victorian literature—next up, a book Lewis Carroll did not influence: The Water-Babies, which did offer a more useful model in how to write for children and adults, a model that several authors would later follow.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.