The Mad Tea Party, by John Tenniel
Image: Project Gutenberg
A few nights ago, I came across an essay about the 1985 movie Dreamchild, on Cabinet des Fées. It is the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, she of Alice in Wonderland, as an adult, coming to terms with her relationship with Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson).
According to the essay, the movie posits an awkward, somewhat childlike (and apparently chaste) Dodgson, and a Lolita-like young Alice. I get the impression, from the essay, that the film might portray Dodgson as more of the victim of Alice and her siblings, rather than the other way around. Later in life, Alice realizes this, and regrets it.
In real life, there is all kinds of controversy about Dodgson’s relationship with Alice and with her sister Lorina, as well as that little matter of all those photographs of young girls (some of them nude). It’s still a mystery why the Liddell family fell out with Dodgson in 1863. Was it because of Alice? Or Lorina? Or Mrs. Liddell (also named Lorina)?
I haven’t seen Dreamchild yet, but the review was written by Elwin Cotman, whose writing I admire. That doesn’t mean I’ll like everything he likes, of course, but the movie certainly sounds interesting enough to check out.
And then, the next day, I came across a letter by M. R. James, written to Nicholas (Nico) Llewelyn Davies. The Davies brothers (George, John, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas) were the foster sons of J. M. Barrie, and the inspirations for Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. From the comments in the introduction to the letter, and other things I’ve read, it sounds like the relationship between Barrie and the brothers was a bit stifling. Certainly, their father was not fond of Barrie when he was alive, and Barrie seems to have gotten guardianship of the boys after their mother’s death through a bit of forgery and twisting of the truth. And there are rumors of pedophilia about Barrie, as well, although Nico denies this.
Nico met M. R. James at Eton, when Nico was an student, about the time that James became Provost. James had the habit of befriending students of a certain age at the school — “not too young, not too old,” as Jack Adrian puts it. He also had a sort of Alice of his own, Jane McBryde, the daughter of James’s close friend James McBryde. James stayed very close to McBryde’s family after McBryde died; and he wrote the children’s fantasy novel, The Five Jars, for Jane. It’s a lovely book; if you like fantasy, and you haven’t read it, I suggest you give it a try. He also wrote her (and her mother, Gwen) extensive letters, filled with fancies like talking birds and snippets of folk tales. Gwen McBryde published the letters in 1956, as Letters to A Friend. I’d love to find a copy of it.
Illustration for “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” drawn by James McBryde
Unlike Dodgson and Barrie, there are no unseemly rumors about James and his friendships with young people. Gwen McBryde didn’t have any problem with James’s relationship with Jane (from other things I’ve read — sorry, I can’t remember where — if James had a romantic crush on anyone in the family, it would have been James McBryde). The majority opinion of what I’ve read (among those writings that bother to talk about it) is that James was maybe on the homosexual side of asexual. The general consensus is that it’s really nobody’s business. And that’s true, too.
The letter to Nico from James was in a response to a query from Nico, asking for suggestions for a weird fiction collection that Nico was compiling. At the time that James wrote the letter (January 1928), he had just read H.P. Lovecraft’s critical essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, and the response in the letter is framed by that reading. It’s interesting to see James’s opinion of the weird fiction of the time, and earlier. He didn’t care for Frankenstein, surprisingly (I don’t think, from comments made in other writings, that he liked Turn of the Screw, either). He did like Wilkie Collins’ A Haunted Hotel, and Mary Wilkins’ A Wind in the Rosebush. He was so-so on Ambrose Bierce, said nice things about Lafcadio Hearn and didn’t like Arthur Machen. And of course he put in a pitch for Sheridan Le Fanu.
It’s amusing to see how disdainful he is of pretentious writing (as done by critics), especially since he was an academic in a particularly dry field. I’ve read some of his professional work, in particular Old Testament Legends, his study on stories from Biblical Apocrypha, and his study of the origin of blood libel (the legend that Jews kill and eat Christian babies, and related nonsense). Speaking as someone who reads a fair bit of academic writing, Dr. James’ style is refreshingly plain and down-to-earth — not adjectives I associate with professorial writing styles.
I don’t really have a point here, except that I thought stumbling on Carroll, Barrie, and James back-to-back like that was a coincidence worth writing about. It’s interesting to see how the fondness for young people (and I use that expression without snark) influenced the writing of these three men, and how differently it unfolded in their lives.
The links to books above are mostly to Project Gutenberg (hurray for them!); Supernatural Horror in Literature is from Feedbooks, and James’ blood libel essay is from the Ghosts & Scholars website.