Cuthbert Vane twirled his moustaches, sucked another deep breath from his opium pipe and with a maniacal ‘Ha HA!’ flipped over another page of the book and slashed his fountain pen wildly through a couple of lines.
At least, that’s what I imagine happened. Last night I settled down to read Lewis Carroll’s lesser-known novel, The Story of Sylvie and Bruno. I had been anticipating this for some time and was excited. I read about forty pages and then I had to put it down because my brain was exploding in sparkly showers of ‘What the HELL is going on?’ It was the craziest reading experience I can remember having. I could not even enjoy the sections where I understood what was happening because I was reeling so much from the working-out of how on earth we had got there.
Now I appreciate that books are primarily the words they contain; the form of the container is secondary. Still, since there must be a container, I prefer it to be attractive. I like a nice edition, me. Especially a nice second-hand hardback, perhaps a little battered, definitely with an inscription. So why would I buy a bland new paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno when I could have a pretty hardback illustrated by Harry Furniss? (Given to Bertha at Christmas 1904 by Uncle Jim and Aunt Jessie and somehow found its way into the Youth Library Collection of Bromley Public Libraries, since you ask. It is pristine.)
The answer is: because the pretty, old edition is in fact abridged. No, not abridged, butchered by someone undoubtedly fuelled by drugs or hatred of Lewis Carroll or the need for strips of printed text with which to construct blackmail letters to young men who had frittered away too much of the pater’s money at the card table. Someone – the publisher? Abridger? – had prefaced my edition (Macmillan, 1904) thus:
This book, culled from the two volumes of Sylvie and Bruno, contains only the portions about the two fairy children (with the original illustrations) in the words of Lewis Carroll, without any extraneous matter. A few words only have in some places been added or altered, when absolutely necessary to dovetail the different paragraphs together, so as to make the “Story” one consecutive whole. The humour in this book is so unique and fascinating, that The Story of Sylvie and Bruno is likely in this form to become as popular as the Alice books by the same author. The two-volume edition is still published as before.
How Cuthbert must have chortled when he read or wrote that preface. (I feel putting ‘Story’ in inverted commas is profoundly telling.) The result of his frenzied antics with the red pen? An unidentified but apparently invisible narrator, moving between two worlds, neither of them ours. Characters who appear and vanish without warning, who refer to remarks nobody has ever made and things which have not happened and who exit gardens then, as soon as they are outside the walls, exit them again. Why they are doing any of this is anybody’s guess. It’s incomprehensible, like a remembered dream – and dreams do seem to be significant to the novel, but in what way I could not begin to fathom.
Yes, it is my own fault and I should have known better. So I am ordering the paperback as soon as finances allow. If you can recommend a good (paper) edition, please tell me!
(Cuthbert and friends celebrate the mutilation of Carroll’s text: illustration by Harry Furniss from Lewis Carroll, The Story of Sylvie and Bruno; London: Macmillan and Co., 1889; from here)