“Promise me you will write my story down, so that I may have it by my bed.
“If you’d like, I will promise. Though I hope you don’t start asking me to write down every story I tell you.”
“Just this one,’ said Alice.”
– Vanessa Tait, The Looking Glass House
Vanessa Tait, great-granddaughter of the Alice who inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, tells the fascinating story of the childhood classic’s strange beginnings through the eyes of a naive and deceived governess.
What happened before Alice fell down the rabbit hole? Oxford, 1862. As Mary Prickett takes up her post as governess to the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, she is thrust into a strange new world. Mary is poor and plain and desperate for change but the little girls in her care see and understand far more than their naive new teacher. And there is another problem: Mary does not like children, especially the precocious Alice Liddell.
When Mary meets Charles Dodgson, the Christ Church mathematics tutor, at a party at the Deanery, she wonders if he may be the person to transform her life. Flattered by his attentions, Mary begins to believe that she could be more than just an overlooked, dowdy governess.
One sunny day, as Mary chaperones the Liddells on a punting trip, Mr Dodgson tells the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But Mary is determined to become Mr Dodgson’s muse and will turn all the lives around her topsy-turvy in pursuit of her obsession.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is one of the most famous and well-read books written in the English language. It is believed to be the third most-quoted text behind the Bible and Shakespeare! It is the 150th anniversary of its publication this year and to celebrate, there is a plethora of new editions and Alice-inspired stories being published. It has always been one of my favourite books; it never fails to fill me with a childish wonder. When offered the opportunity to review The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait, of course I took it! Tait is the great-granddaughter of the famous Alice Liddell, forever captured between the pages of Carroll’s story. I love to read the interpretations of others and this one was no exception; Tait’s background puts her in a unique position to write a story as close to the ‘truth’ as we might see. There have been many academics who have tried to explain Dodgson (Carroll) and his relationship with Alice but he is still viewed as an enigma of sorts.
When Mary Prickett commences as governess to the Liddell family, she is allowed into a world that is far from her modest upbringing. Mary is an unfortunate character: plain, poor and insufferably uptight. She is most uncomfortable with her self and her new surroundings; she does not appear to warm to her position in the Deanery or to the Liddell family, especially Mrs Liddell and Alice. It appears that Mary is only interested in raising her own social status and she doesn’t seem to cope with getting lost in the background. As her infatuation with Mr Dodgson increases, along with her dislike of Alice, Mary sets out to ruin who she desires the most but cannot have.
Tait’s story is an interesting one to read; given her closeness to the topic, she could have romanticised her family and portrayed them in a shining light, and yet she chose to show them in an unfavourable light. Mr Liddell and the youngest daughter Edith are not given much of the story and even Ina – the eldest – is not explored in any great detail. Mrs Liddell is an odd character; she is haughty and painful and like Mary, not the easiest character to like. Mary is really quite an unreliable narrator. She is jaded and cynical and her instant dislike of Alice colours how the reader views the story. Alice certainly comes across as precocious, demanding and attention seeking but she is a ten-year-old girl; the world belongs to her and she is confident of her place in it. Mary hates that Alice challenges her and she incredibly jealous of the relationship between Alice and Dodgson.
The story was always going to be centred on the relationship between the two. It has been a point of contention among readers and academics for a long time. Dodgson’s adoration of young children has sparked all kinds of theories around his intentions and I think Tait has walked a very smart line in that she remains as ambiguous as possible. The reader can certainly read between the lines at times but I wasn’t left with a definite feeling either way. Tait’s recreation of Dodgson is certainly more sentimental than sexual however the readers are left to make up their own mind.
I must admit The Looking Glass House was different to what I was expecting but then, I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for. It is clear that a huge amount of research has gone into this book although it doesn’t come across as a recounting of history. Tait evokes a lovely sense of the Victorian era but at times it lacked complexity. The story is still engaging and I loved the smattering of Alice in Wonderland references. It is definitely an enjoyable read for Alice fans and readers alike!
AUTHOR: Vanessa Tait
PUBLISHER: Allen and Unwin
PUB DATE: August 2015
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for sending me a reading copy in exchange for an honest review!