Puzzles by the perfectly sensical Lewis Carroll
By MICHAEL CAINES
Opening at random Gillian Beer's new edition of Lewis Carroll's poems, Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense, guarantees a pleasurable experience – not all of it nonsensical.
Take page 12, for example, where you'll find "Brother and Sister". A classic case of the sibling feud, the poem begins with a "calm" sister's rejection of advice from a "prudent" brother, and ends, via a detour into the kitchen to borrow a frying pan, in an excellent moral: "Never stew your sister".
Or there's the plain serenity of page 87: "All in the golden afternoon / Full leisurely we glide; / For both our oars, with little skill, / By little arms are plied . . .".
Or there's page 50, which confronts you with the musically marked-up "score" for "The Dear Gazelle": a stanza about the narrator's "infant son" fleeing Tooting School begins "pp" and ends "con spirito": "And serve him right, the little fool!". So far, so – sensical?
But there is also a pleasant surprise in the appendix of "Poems Doubtfully Attributed to Lewis Carroll": "Solutions to Puzzles from Wonderland, probably from another hand". As Professor Beer notes, these answers in rhyme may be the work of Mrs Gatty, the energetic editor of the family periodical Aunt Judy's Magazine, in which the seven puzzles (originally written for Carroll's young friends) and their solutions first appeared, either side of Christmas 1870.
That attribution seems more than likely. According to Christabel Maxwell's Mrs Gatty and Mrs Maxwell, Margaret Gatty greatly admired Carroll's work ("If you want to have a good hour's smiling do beg, borrow or steal Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", she told a friend; "It is the only dreamy dream I ever read, and it makes one feel as if one was asleep in a very fantastical world of animals all topsy-turvy"), and had shown how much she appreciated him a few years earlier, when she published a couple of his stories in her magazine and urged him to take them further – the stories duly grew into Sylvia and Bruno.
Here's one of Carroll's verse-puzzles; a familiar trick to some readers, I'm sure, but all good clean Victorian fun, all the same. Read on a little to judge the verse-solution for yourself. Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense will be reviewed in the TLS at a later date.
John gave his brother James a box:
About it there were many locks.
James woke and said it gave him pain;
So gave it back to John again.
The box was not with lid supplied,
Yet caused two lids to open wide:
And all these locks had never a key
What kind of a box, then, could it be?
As curly-wigged Jemmy was sleeping in bed,
His brother John gave him a blow on the head;
James opened his eyelids, and spying his brother,
Doubled his fist, and gave him another.
This kind of box then is not so rare;
The lids are the eyelids, the locks are the hair,
And so every schoolboy can tell to his cost,
The key to the tangles is constantly lost.