Thursday, 22 October 2015

Book Review: The Looking Glass House

I am in the very pleasant position of having a bevy of books on my desk to review, so I ought to crack on with it before my own is out!  Today, I bring you a familiar tale from an unfamiliar viewpoint…

 

The Looking Glass House has a very unique selling point to recommend it. The author, Vanessa Tait, is the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, and she presents us with the story of Lewis Carroll’s friendship and then desertion by the Liddell family, but from the viewpoint of the governess, Mary Prickett.
 
Mary Prickett (unknown photographer)
If you have been following the fashions in Carroll-interpretation then you will be familiar with the notion that instead of desiring the formidable girl-queen Alice, it was actually the ever-present Miss Prickett that Carroll was paying court to, but with most things to do with the ever elusive Reverend Charles Dodgson, nothing is clear-cut.  In Tait’s story, she presents us with a governess, surely one of the loneliest jobs in Victorian England, in a city full of riches, all of which are denied her.  Into her life comes the gentle, unusual bachelor, Dodgson, who deplores the rough physicalities of life, who captures the pure wonder of beauty and who also captures Miss Prickett’s eye.  What could possibly go wrong?
 
The Liddell sisters, Edith, Ina and Alice (1858) Lewis Carroll
The book itself is beautifully presented.  I am a sucker for book design and the positive/negative silhouettes and references to Wonderland on the cover are nicely judged. The characters of Wonderland are sneaked in to the cover and the text both obviously and surreptitiously, such as with touches like the ‘Fat-Ten-U’ medicine that Mary considers to plump her figure.
 
Alice as the Beggar Maid awaiting her King Cophetua (1858) Lewis Carroll
The character of Alice is probably one thing that will draw readers to the book.  What exactly was going on there?  And will we ever know? The problem I have with the whole Dodgson and Alice affair is that is almost impossible to look at it in an unbiased manner now as so much information and presumption has happened in the last 150 years.  I suspect the advent of the internet, not to mention photoshop has not helped matters one little bit, causing things like this to happen…

Take this photograph of Lewis Carroll...
Add this photograph, presumably a father and daughter
And together with the 'Alice' from the Sisters picture above,
Hey presto, call Project Yew Tree....
Whenever I discuss Alice Liddell with people, perfectly intelligent, rational people, you will get at least one person who will throw up their hands and declare Dodgson was a paedophile.  It is a very easy step to take given his desire to ‘collect’ little girls in photographs, some of which are utterly unpalatable to our modern eyes.  The thing I found refreshing about Tait’s book is that this whole situation is not only handled within the narrative without our modern assumption, and also the facts, such as we know them, are covered in a postscript at the end, covering the author’s family history.  You would think Tait would attempt to portray her family in the most favourable light but it seems an honest telling of a little girl’s caprice, a mother’s folly and a man at odds with society, getting things wrong.  Re-reading Alice in Wonderland as an adult (which I periodically do) it is actually tempting to see Dodgson as Alice, seeing society as nonsensical and dangerous, full of terror and humour and unfathomable mysteries which could get him into trouble.
 
Grace Weld as Red Riding Hood (1857) Lewis Carroll
The image is referenced in the novel
I really enjoyed The Looking Glass House and have no hesitation to recommend it to you.  Even though to most of us, the outcome is already known, by using Mary Prickett, Tait allows us to see everything, all the familiar stories, from a different viewpoint.  Like fictional Alice, Mary seems to struggle to negotiate the fantastical society where you could equally meet a queen as a dead swan and have to automatically know how to react to each.  I found her handling of the everso-easy-to-judge Dodgson to be both sympathetic yet honest and Alice, who is easy to be typecast as either a victim or a monster, is shown for what she is, just a little girl. Add to your Christmas list or sneak onto your Kindle, either way, this is pleasurable reading for a Victorianist at Christmas.

The Look Glass House is available to buy now from Amazon UK (here), to preorder USA (here) or at a bookshop near you...

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