The Oxford Brotherhood by Guillermo Martinez: Featured Excerpt
As I gave my name at the entrance to Merton College it was still light, with that persistent and peaceful quality of summer days in England. While I waited for Seldom to come and get me, I peered into the grassy quadrangle of the first courtyard and became once more ensnared by the mystery of these interior gardens. There was something, whether a certain proportion in the height of the walls or perhaps the neatness with which the crests of the roofs made their appearance, that succeeded (was it a trick of the eyes or was it simply the peace and quiet of the place?) in bringing the sky miraculously close, as if the Platonic image of the rectangle, cut high above a celestial pane, were brought almost at arm’s reach. I saw, halfway across the lawn, a few shiny and symmetrical beds of poppies. An oblique ray of sunshine fell on the stone galleries, and the angle at which it lit up the centuries-old stone brought to mind the sundials of ancient civilizations and the infinitesimal rotation of a time beyond human measure. Seldom appeared at a corner and led me along a second gallery to the fellows’ garden. We saw a number of dons hurry across in the opposite direction, like a murder of crows in their stiff black robes.
‘Everyone will now be busy with dinner in the cafeteria,’ Seldom said. ‘We’ll be able to talk in the garden without anyone disturbing us.’
He pointed to a lonely table in one of the corners of the gallery. A very old man glanced up at us, carefully placed his cigar on the table and moved back his chair in order to lift himself slowly with the aid of his stick.
‘That’s Sir Richard Ranelagh,’ Seldom whispered. ‘He was deputy minister of defense for many years and now, since his retirement, he’s president of our Brotherhood. He’s a very well-known writer of spy novels as well. I don’t need to tell you that what you are about to hear must be kept in the strictest confidence.’
I nodded and we approached the table. I shook a fragile hand that still preserved a surprisingly firm grip, told him my name and we exchanged a few polite words. Under his wrinkled skin and his tortoise eyelids, Sir Richard gave the appearance of a vivacious personality, with cold and piercing eyes; while nodding slightly at the words with which Seldom introduced me, he never stopped studying me behind a cautious smile, as if he wished to see for himself and suspend his judgment for the time being. That he had been Number Two at the Ministry of Defence didn’t diminish him in my view, rather the contrary. I had read enough le Carré novels to know that in the realm of Intelligence, as in so many others, Number Two was in fact Number One. On the table were three glasses and a bottle of whisky, of which Sir Richard had obviously partaken a fair amount. Seldom poured equal measures into his glass and mine. After the preliminary small talk, Sir Richard picked up his cigar and gave it a lengthy puff. ‘Arthur must have told you that we have a long and sad tale to tell.’ He exchanged glances with Seldom, as if preparing for a difficult task for which he needed Seldom’s help. ‘In any case, we’ll both share in the telling. But where to begin?’
‘As the King would advise,’ said Seldom, ‘“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”’
‘But perhaps we should begin before the beginning,’ Sir Richard said and he leaned back in his chair as if about to examine me. ‘What do you know about Lewis Carroll’s diaries?’
‘I didn’t even know such a thing existed,’ I said. ‘In fact, I know almost nothing of his life.’
I felt at fault, as if I were back at the examination tables of my student years. I had only read, in the mists of my distant childhood, a hesitant Spanish translation of Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. And though I had once visited Christ Church, where Carroll had both lectured on mathematics and given sermons, and had seen in passing his portrait in the Dining Hall, I had never become interested enough to track his footsteps. Also, I cultivated at the time a certain voluntary indifference, quite healthy in fact, towards the writers behind the books, and I preferred to pay more attention to the creatures of fiction than to the creators of flesh and blood. But of course, this last I couldn’t say out loud in front of two members of a Carroll Brotherhood.
‘The diaries exist, certainly,’ Ranelagh said, ‘and in the most disturbing state: they are incomplete. Throughout his life, Carroll filled some thirteen notebooks, and perhaps only his first biographer, his nephew Stuart Dodgson, was fortunate enough to be able to read them in their entirety. We know this because he quotes from all of the notebooks in his inaugural biography of 1898. The notebooks were left to gather dust in the family home for thirty silent years, but the centenary of Carroll’s birth sparked a renewed interest in him and his family decided to exhume and collect all his scattered papers. When they attempted to recover the diaries they discovered that four of the original notebooks had disappeared. Was it due to carelessness, were they mislaid during a move, was it a mere lack of interest? Or did someone else in those three decades, a relative excessively anxious to protect Carroll’s reputation, read the notebooks, every one of them, apply his own censorious judgment, and eliminate these four because they contained entries felt to be too compromising? We don’t know. Fortunately, the notebooks that covered the period in which he met Alice Liddell and wrote Alice in Wonderland survived. But here, too, the scholars who went through them with a fine-tooth comb found a maddening detail, a speck of incertitude, which led to all kinds of speculation and conjecture. In the 1863 notebook a few pages are missing, and in particular there are traces of one that has been clearly torn out and that corresponds to a very delicate moment in Carroll’s relationship with Alice’s parents.’
‘Delicate . . . in what sense?’ I brought myself to interrupt. ‘I would say in the most delicate sense imaginable.’
Ranelagh puffed again on his cigar and slightly changed his tone, as if he were about to venture into a mined territory.
‘You must no doubt know something of the story behind the Alice books. At least, allow me to refresh your memory. In that summer of 1863, the thirty-something-year-old Lewis Carroll was living in bachelor rooms at Christ Church, lecturing in mathematics and debating whether or not to enter a religious order. Eight years earlier, the new dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell, had established himself in Oxford with his wife and four children: Harry, Ina, Alice and Edith. Carroll would cross paths with the children every day in the library gardens; when he first met Alice, she was barely three years old. At first he befriended and subsequently, at Liddell’s request, tutored the dean’s eldest son, Harry, in mathematics. Later, Carroll began to record in his diaries his increasingly frequent meetings and walks with Ina, the eldest of the Liddell girls, always accompanied by the governess, Miss Prickett, a singularly unattractive woman, of whom he secretly made fun together with the girls. As Alice and Edith grew older, they began to take part in the games and songs that Lewis Carroll invented and join the group on its summer outings on the river, always in the inevitable company of Miss Prickett, as he infallibly set down in his diary. By then he had developed his interest in photography; he had bought his first equipment and he had frequent sessions with all three girls, having them pose in all kinds of situations and disguises, sometimes half-naked, as in the famous picture of Alice as a beggar-maid. However odd it might seem to us now, whether because of the aura of respectability granted by his double role as Oxford professor and as clergyman, or because he seemed nothing but an eccentric yet harmless character, or simply because in those bygone days people were more trusting and more innocent, neither the dean nor his wife objected to those entertainments and outings. Lewis Carroll had merely to send them a note, and he was allowed to carry the girls off to the river for an entire afternoon. A year earlier, in 1862, on one of these outings, he told them the story of Alice underground, and the Alice Liddell of flesh and blood had made him promise to write it down as a book just for her. Lewis Carroll waited six months before setting himself down to the task and, in this summer of 1863, he still hadn’t finished it. But he doubtlessly remained on excellent terms with the Liddell family. We arrive then at June the twenty-fourth. In the morning, Alice and Edith go to Lewis Carroll’s rooms to drag him off on an excursion to Nuneham, and are joined by the dean, Mrs. Liddell and several others. They are a group of ten, and Lewis Carroll jots down all of their names. Exceptionally, the governess, Miss Prickett, does not go with them, perhaps because the girls were accompanied by their parents. They rent a large boat, take turns rowing across the river, partake of tea under the trees on the other side and, at dusk, while the rest of the group goes home in a carriage, Lewis Carroll returns on his own with the three girls by train. In his diary, recording the moment in which he’s left alone with them, he writes in brackets “Mirabile dictu!”, an expression he used when things unexpectedly went his way. Then he added: “A very pleasant excursion with a very pleasant ending.” He himself underlined “very” in the notebook.’ Here Ranelagh paused, perhaps also to underline the effect of these words.
‘How old were the girls?’ I asked.
‘A very pertinent question, though I’m afraid that ages meant something different in those days. “The past is a foreign country”, as Hartley noted, and that is true also for what is considered proper. We only need recall, as a piece of the conundrum, that women could be legally married at the age of twelve; however, in other aspects they were much more childish than girls are today. Lewis Carroll himself on several occasions uses the expression “child-wife” to refer to the pubescent spouses of other characters of that time. Ina was fourteen, and she was already a blossoming adolescent, tall and beautiful according to the pictures of her. She had been Lewis Carroll’s first child friend, and her name appears very frequently in the diaries. That summer was the last in which she could go out unchaperoned. Alice was eleven and the previous year she had become his favorite. Several contemporary witnesses agree in pointing out the special devotion he showed towards her, though curiously there are hardly any explicit traces of this in the diaries. She was heading towards twelve, the age at which Lewis Carroll would lose or replace his child friends. Edith was nine.’ Ranelagh looked at us as if expecting another question, and poured himself another glass of whisky before carrying on. ‘At the end of that day, Lewis Carroll goes to bed peacefully and on the next day requests again the girls’ company, but this time Mrs. Liddell calls on him at his rooms and the famous conversation takes place, in which she asks him to stay away from her family. What had happened during the outing, or perhaps during the return trip on the train? What had Mrs. Liddell noticed in the behavior of Lewis Carroll towards her daughters? What had the girls told their mother upon returning home? Whatever Lewis Carroll had to say about this, however much or however little, was doubtlessly that torn-out page. What is certain is that Lewis Carroll’s relationship with the family becomes distant, and this state of affairs lasts for several months. When he makes an attempt to ask again for permission to meet up with the girls, Mrs. Liddell’s refusal is forthright. And when at last he finishes writing the book, he cannot bring it to Alice in person; he must resign himself to sending it in the post. And yet, in spite of all this (and this is a curious fact in and of itself), the relationship is not wholly severed. After a time, he’s welcomed again in the house, even though he’s still kept away from the girls. And later on, Lewis Carroll will have friendly encounters with Mrs. Liddell and he will continue to send his books to her daughters until well into their adulthood. He even takes Alice’s picture once more, when she turns eighteen.’
‘That would suggest that whatever he did wasn’t considered all that serious,’ I said. ‘Or that he was given the benefit of the doubt.’
‘This, in fact, is the only question. Did Lewis Carroll actually do something untoward during that train ride? What I mean is: did he overstep the self-imposed limits to which he himself held in his relationship with the girls during his entire life? Did a transgression of some kind take place during that journey, in the nature of a, shall we say, physical contact? Something that the girls perhaps recounted in an innocent manner, without fully understanding it; something that awoke in the mother a sense of alarm? Or was it merely a vague feeling of danger that the mother perceived during the excursion, perhaps an excessive familiarity, observing him in the company of her daughters? Or did the warning come from another of the adults in the group, as Lewis Carroll left to accompany the girls? Or was it, as some have suggested, something entirely different? One of the most distinguished members of our Brotherhood, Thornton Reeves, recently published the most exhaustive biography we have to date, and upon reaching that black hole he offered the conjecture that it was perhaps during that conversation that Lewis Carroll asked for Alice’s hand in marriage, and it was this that alarmed Mrs. Liddell and made her see him in an entirely different light.’
‘The thunder of sex at the idyllic Victorian boating-picnic,’ pronounced Seldom.
‘Exactly,’ Ranelagh concurred. ‘Or rather a full electric storm above Lewis Carroll’s head, suspended in time. And raging also over the battling contenders of our Brotherhood.’ ‘A battle? Between what factions?’ I asked. Ranelagh seemed to consider my question carefully, as if he had exceeded himself and would prefer to fall back on a different formulation.
‘It’s a debate, still open, to determine the nature, whether culpable or innocent, of his feelings for the girls. Lewis Carroll had dozens of relationships with children throughout his life, and none of them, nor their parents, ever mentioned any improper behavior. His predilection for young girls, and his friendships with them, was always in the open, for all the world to see. There is not, in any of the documents and correspondence related to Lewis Carroll, a single concrete proof that would allow us to draw a line, however thin, between thought and action. However, we know through the diaries he kept during the years of his relationship with the Liddell children, that Lewis Carroll underwent his deepest spiritual crisis, and there are a fair number of prayers and entreaties to God to help him make amends and leave his sins behind once and for all. But what were these sins? Were they, once again, sins of commission or merely of thought? He’s never sufficiently explicit when writing about these things, as if he didn’t allow himself to confide fully even in his diaries. Lewis Carroll’s father was an archdeacon, and as a child his upbringing was strictly religious: the slightest equivocal thought, the least embarrassment, would suffice to make him pray for guidance. In the end, every biographical attempt to capture Lewis Carroll’s persona skirts the edge of this uncertain abyss, and is based on a presumption of innocence until evidence to the contrary. And even though there are many in our suspicious times who prefer automatically to imagine the contrary, even those who are out to catch a pedophile Lewis Carroll have never yet succeeded in giving definitive proof.’
‘Although they could allege,’ Seldom observed, ‘that the pictures he took of those girls are more than condemnatory.’ ‘We’ve been through all that already, Arthur.’ Sir Richard shook his head and carried on, his eyes fixed on me alone, as if it were up to him to defend equanimity in a difficult case set before an imaginary tribunal. ‘Nothing is as easy or clear as that. In those days, children were considered angelic and the nakedness of a child was part of an Edenic ideal. Lewis Carroll took his pictures under the approving eyes of the children’s parents, never as something shameful that he had to practise in secret. His nudes were taken to be exhibited at a time when the art of photography was in its infancy. It’s very probable that he considered himself not unlike a painter who has his models pose dressed up or stripped of all clothing.
When his young friends entered adulthood, he punctually sent their mothers the negatives so that they could destroy them if the girls felt at all ashamed in any way. Those were different times, prior to Freud and Humbert. And if it’s true that human nature, like the other, abhors a vacuum, in the immense variety of human types, we should not discard the idea that in those days, and even now, there were and are individuals who love children in the purest way, and restrain from touching them improperly.’
Ranelagh turned towards Seldom once more, as if this were a subject on which they couldn’t reach an agreement, and had settled on a sort of tie through the repetition of the same moves.
‘But to return to the main question: I hope you now understand why that torn-out page has become a most powerful magnet, a touchstone for all biographers. Perhaps on that page, and only on that page, there appeared in writing the decisive proof, the fatal event, the explicit recognition of an infamous act. Since the sixties, when the notebooks were made public, the ghost of that page never ceased to whisper possibilities in our ears. As the poet might have said, there’s no keener murmuring source than the unspoken word, nor book more voluminous than the one that’s lost a page. However, until very recently, there was nothing but that: mere conjectures. None of the researchers were able to go beyond these suppositions, which, as is often the case, tended to reflect whatever portrait each of them had imagined for the character. Only Josephine Grey, another of the founders of our Brotherhood, succeeded, some fifteen years ago, in taking a step forward in the research. She managed to prove, in an ingenious and incontrovertible manner, that the page had not been ripped out by Lewis Carroll but in all probability by one of his two grandnieces, Menella or Violet Dodgson, the daughters of Stuart, who had remained custodians of the papers. What’s more, this tells us indirectly something else: that Lewis Carroll was not necessarily ashamed of or even sorry about whatever was written there. But in any case, once again, what was it that the sisters read between those lines? What did they conclude from their perusing that led them to tear out the page? What did that page, perhaps unintentionally, reveal? And so we reach the beginning of this year, when we, the members of the Brotherhood, decided we would publish an annotated edition of the surviving diaries of Lewis Carroll. They are, as I’ve told you, nine handwritten notebooks, kept in the house that Lewis Carroll bought in Guildford towards the end of his life, and now converted into a small museum. As none of the members of the Brotherhood could travel to Guildford and stay there long enough to go through all the papers, in the last meeting in July, a few days ago, it was decided that we’d send an intern, Kristen Hill, a marvelously devoted and meticulous young lady who is helping us with assorted tasks. We asked her to stay in Guildford for a few days in order to assess the condition of the diaries. She was instructed to photocopy every page, one by one, as well as all related papers she might be able to find. Her mother lives in the outskirts of Guildford and that allowed us to save on lodging expenses. And then, on the second day, we received a most extraordinary piece of news.’
‘She found the page?’ I couldn’t refrain from asking.
‘She found something that could be very . . . disturbing. But that’s something that Arthur should tell you, since it was he who received the girl’s phone call from Guildford.’
Copyright © 2022 by Guillermo Martinez. All rights reserved.
About The Oxford Brotherhood by Guillermo Martinez:
Mathematics student G is trying to resurrect his studies, which is proving difficult as he finds himself drawn into investigating a series of mysterious crimes. When Kristen, a researcher hired by the Lewis Carroll Brotherhood, makes a startling new discovery concerning pages torn from Caroll’s diary, she hesitates to reveal to her employers a hitherto unknown chapter in his life. Oxford would be rocked to its core if the truth about Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell—the real Alice—were brought to light.
After Kristen is involved in a surreal accident and members of the Brotherhood are anonymously sent salacious photographs of Alice, G joins forces with Kristen as they begin to confront that sinister powers that are at work. More pictures are received, and it becomes clear that a murderer is stalking anyone who shows too much interest in uncovering certain aspects of Lewis Carroll’s life.
G must stretch his mathematical mind to its limits to solve the mystery and understand the cryptic workings of the Brotherhood. Until then, nobody—not even G himself—is safe. A thrilling novel inspired by true, strange stories from Lewis Caroll’s life, The Oxford Brotherhood is sure to make you curiouser and curiouser.