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Lewis Carroll’s adventures in Russia

July 10, 2018


By Mark Davies

We “found the expedition well worth the discomfort we had to endure from first to last”. This is a sentiment no doubt expressed by many English football fans who made the long trip to Nizhny Novgorod for the recent World Cup match with Panama. But these words were written more than 150 years ago by Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll (1832–98), on his first and only overseas holiday.



Dodgson was travelling with his old Oxford University friend the Revd Henry Parry Liddon (1829–90), and Nizhny was the most distant and exotic destination of their two-month trip in the summer of 1867. Dodgson went there to experience Nizhny’s famed “world fair” of commerce rather than of football. In a letter to his sister, Louisa, he wrote that “the whole place swarms with Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Persians, Chinamen, etc., besides the native Russians”. To this list Liddon added Circassians, Tartars and Cossacks.

They had to stay overnight unexpectedly, which was just as well: “all the novelties of the day were thrown into the shade by our adventures at sunset”, Dodgson wrote of his first experience of a muezzin’s call, emanating from the Tartar Mosque. “It was the strangest, wildest thing you can imagine – ringing through the air over our heads” with “an indescribably sad and ghost-like effect”.

The two men had left Dover a month earlier, on July 13, and travelled across Europe by train. Liddon had a particular purpose: to assess the prospects of greater union between the Anglican and the Russian Orthodox Churches. Dodgson went along more for the ride and the view, and his diary is more concerned with the new foods, customs, languages and peoples to which he was exposed. He writes of Cronstadt Harbour (the main seaport for St Petersburg), for example, that “the place looked something like an ant-nest: hundreds of workmen swarming from end to end of the great hollow”; “we got a very good general idea of the great scale on which the works here are carried on, and the resources disposable in case of war”. He describes Ems, on the other hand, as a “delightful place where people have nothing to do, and all day to do it in. It is certainly the place for thoroughly enjoying idleness”.

His love of the absurd shows through too: a green parrot in Danzig (Gdansk), for instance, which refused all encouragement to “commit itself to any statement” because it was from Mexico and so “spricht nicht Englisch . . . nicht Deutsch”. Of the service at their Königsberg (Kaliningrad) hotel, Dodgson wrote, “we enjoy one unusual privilege – we may ring our bells as much and as often as we like: no measures are taken to stop the noise”. (Kaliningrad, incidentally, was the scene of England’s less successful match against Belgium last week.) In Warsaw he was much taken with a “tall and very friendly” greyhound who attempted to drink Dodgson’s bath water as quickly as it was poured, and in Berlin he perceived that the fondness for statues of “a colossal figure of a man killing, about to kill or having killed . . . a beast” made parts of the city look like “a fossil slaughter house”.



Perhaps the strangest encounter of all, however, was with some people he already knew very well. On August 10, soon after their return from Nizhny, he was invited to dine at the house of the chaplain of the English Chapel in Moscow. Two other guests that evening were Thomas and Martha Combe. Dodgson had known the Combes for years, most notably because Thomas Combe (1796–1872), as superintendent of Oxford University’s Clarendon Press, had overseen the printing of the first copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland two years earlier. Yet Dodgson recorded this surprising meeting without any further comment and no hint as to how it came about. It might be possible to infer from this an element of friction between the two men. It was perhaps a meeting neither of them had anticipated or wanted. It was Combe who had been ultimately responsible for the poor quality of that first edition of Wonderland, and Dodgson who had suffered the financial consequences when John Tenniel insisted that it was so poor that it should be withdrawn (with the result that the few copies that survive are enormously valuable).

Yet Dodgson also had good reason to be grateful to Thomas Combe, whom he visited regularly at his home in the Press in Jericho. It was there that Dodgson’s own illustrations for his draft story of “Alice” were criticized by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner; it was Woolner’s opinion among several that ultimately persuaded Dodgson to engage Tenniel for the role. Combe’s patronage of other Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti helped Dodgson to befriend and photograph them. It was also at the Combes’ house that Dodgson met Alexander Macmillan, who subsequently published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it was the Jericho church where Combe was a warden in which Dodgson preached his first ever Oxford sermon.

Dodgson’s travelling companion Liddon also played his part in the evolution of “Alice”. With the success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dodgson was already entertaining a “floating idea of writing a sort of sequel to Alice” during this Russian trip. According to Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, Dodgson’s nephew and first biographer, “it was Dr. Liddon who suggested the name finally adopted”, that is, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. One thing Alice finds is a train. It enables her to move, as a pawn, to the fourth row of the chessboard. Dodgson had taken a travelling chess set with him, which proved a boon on some of their long train journeys; he also recorded his first impression of Moscow as “bulging gilded domes, in which you see as in a looking-glass distorted pictures of the city”.

The whole trip lasted exactly two months. Dodgson’s journal demonstrates the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a touristic debutant, with the only hint of home sickness coming on the night ferry home, on seeing “the lights of Dover, as they slowly broadened on the horizon, as if the old land were opening its arms to receive its homeward bound children”. All the indications are that he had a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening adventure – yet he never left England again. Curiouser, you might say, and curiouser.


One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on surajit793.

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