Little, Big has a major character named Sylvie. She has a lookalike brother named Bruno. Her adventures have some vague resemblance to the title character of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno (188) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), the most flummoxing Victorian novels I have ever read. Perhaps the resemblance is more than vague, but if so I missed it. As I said, I was flummoxed.
The narrator, a character not so different than Charles Dodgson, falls into dreams and trances that move him back and forth between a crazy Alice in Wonderland-like dream world and a no less unreal world that is like a sentimental Victorian romance, with noble renunciations and temperance pledges and self-sacrificing doctors heroically exposing themselves to the Plague. Neither of these worlds are especially “real.” Behind both of them is a vaguely glimpsed Fairyland, the home of the fairies Sylvie and Bruno, which overlaps with the other worlds during “eerie states” distinct from the dreams and trances. The process is “such as we meet with in ‘Esoteric Buddhism’” (SBC, Preface).
So there is this mode, in which fairies lead a laborer to take a temperance pledge:
I know full well that the taste for this kind of sentimentality thrives today, but some of this stuff feels like kitsch.
“It’s a miserable story!” said Bruno. “it begins miserably, and it ends miserablier. I think I shall cry. Sylvie, please lend me your handkerchief.”
“I haven’t got it with me,” Sylvie whispered.
“Then I wo’n’t cry,” said Bruno manfully. (SBC, ch. 23).
Bruno is not referring to the melodramatic plot, but to a poem that runs like this:
Little Birds are writing
To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted –
Letterpress, when toasted,
Loses its good looks.
I was happier with the ample nonsense of the other plot, when cruel, fat, spoiled boys turning into giant porcupines:
Or when the Gardener recounts his autobiography in verse:
“He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
‘A fact so dread’, he faintly said,
‘Extinguishes all hope!’” (SBC, ch. 20)
Or when the Professor describes the famous 1:1 scale map:
“We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.” (SBC, ch. 11)
That map is Carroll’s invention, yes? I always thought it was; now I have seen it with my own eyes.
Some of the transitions between the “worlds” of the novel are uncanny and surprising. The puns are incessant and destabilizing, actively interfering with the movement of the plot (I am listing good things about the book now – this is a plus, the element that led James Joyce to wonder if it would be possible to make every single word a pun). Characters transform in lively and unpredictable ways. The inset sentimental novel I found so irritating is pretty clearly both what it seems but also a parody of its genre.
“It are ever so many other things,” said Bruno. “Aren’t it, Sylvie?” (SBC, ch. 11)
Bruno’s insufferable cutesy-poo baby talk is another difficulty. Oh well. He is right, he has hit the Sylvie and Bruno novels smack on the snout. I don’t know what they are.