The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Sylvie and Bruno (1889)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Sylvie and Bruno and its sequel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) were written by “Lewis Carroll,” the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898). Dodgson was a Reverend and resident at the Oxford college of Christ Church, where he taught mathematics. But what he is known for today are the Alice books—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)—two of the most famous of children’s books in the English language.
Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded are about two sets of characters, one Faerie and one human. Sylvie and Bruno are Faerie, and the two novels tell the story of their adventures in the Faerie realm of Outland. Their father, the Warden of Outland, first faces a revolution of the people of Outland and then later the plots of his evil brother, the Sub Warden. Eventually the Warden is asked to be the ruler of Elfland, so he leaves the Palace of Outland in the hands of his brother, who takes control in the Warden’s absence. The Warden returns, gathers up Sylvie and Bruno, and declares that he will return to Elfland with them.
The human characters in the novels include the nameless narrator (implicitly Lewis Carroll), Lady Muriel Orme, and the narrator’s friend Arthur Forester. The narrator befriends Lady Muriel on a train ride, and they have a nice conversation before parting. The narrator then meets up with Arthur and the two meet Lady Muriel, who is the daughter of their host. Arthur falls in love with Muriel, and she is attracted to him, but there are various difficulties to be overcome before they can be married. In Sylvie and Bruno Concluded the two are separated when Arthur goes to a disease-stricken village, and Arthur is believed dead before returning to Muriel. Sylvie and Bruno meanwhile have been wandering around the countryside, independent of adult supervision. At first they are unaware of the narrator’s presence but eventually they begin interacting with him. And then they begin interacting with Lady Muriel and Arthur.
Carroll described Sylvie and Bruno as “a huge unwieldy mass of litterature [sic],”1 and reading it now it is difficult to believe that it was ever intended to be read by or to children. The adult section of the novel has discussions of topics like railway literature and Shakespeare’s treatment of ghosts, and it is hard to imagine such things holding a child’s attention. Nor are the novel’s philosophy, Christian propaganda, or love story likely to be interesting to children. Only the overtly fantastic Sylvie and Bruno portions of the novel are likely to entertain children.
The adult portion of the novel is much less interesting than Sylvie and Bruno’s story. While the content of the novel is standard Faerie fantasy, it is Carroll’s handling of the material which is of particular note. The novel has the wordplay and use of paradoxes familiar to readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Sylvie and Bruno also have a discussion of the effect of gravity on objects in space, which leads to the narrator commenting about a cord, attached to the Earth and fastened to a house in space, and how gravity would increase on the house when the cord was pulled on from Earth. This is interestingly near to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s idea of a space elevator.
But it is the central conceit of the novel, and how Carroll handles it, which is most interesting. The Sylvie and Bruno portion of the story begins as something clearly separate from the narrator/Muriel/Arthur plot. But Carroll’s transitions between the two are jarringly abrupt, and it is not clear for many pages that the narrator is dreaming about Sylvie and Bruno. For a little while, at the beginning of the novel, Sylvie and Bruno do not notice the narrator, so it is unclear whether the narrator is a character or simply a third person omniscient narrator. The novel starts in media res, so that the reader has no context for events, and the shifts between the real world and Outland are sudden. Carroll eventually makes it clear to the reader that the narrator is dreaming about Outland, but then Sylvie and Bruno begin appearing in the narrator’s reality, first in situations in which only he can see them, and then eventually when Muriel and Arthur can meet them. Moreover, there are moments, early in the novel, when the narrator acknowledges his own existence as a fictional character. The ambiguity and instability in Sylvie and Bruno make for a sometimes unnerving and unusually interesting reading experience.
Print: Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Other Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2018.
1 Lewis Carroll, “Preface,” in Sylvie and Bruno (London: Macmillan and Co., 1889), x.