The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

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Reviewed by Esther Brazil

“Some children have a most disagreeable way of getting grown-up: I hope you won’t do anything of that sort before we meet again.”

So wrote Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, to one of his many child-friends in April 1868. His creations of Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass were inspired by his most famous child-friend, Alice Liddell, and they have become ubiquitous to the point of being cultural wallpaper. The imagery from the book and its sequel teeters irresistibly between quaint and horrifying: murderous queens and harassed animal-servants, endless cake, pocket-watches. The books are effortlessly referenced by illustrations of any of these, with the story itself falling quietly into the background as secondary material. A recent film adaptations from 2010, starring Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp, took extraordinary liberties without eliciting a squeak of disapproval from viewers hungry for a fresh take on the story: Alice was shown as an adolescent fleeing her own surprise engagement party, and her subsequent relationship with the Mad Hatter is uncomfortably ambiguous.

There has been renewed interest in the story behind the books, making the publication The Looking Glass House timely indeed. Written by the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell herself, the book covers a shrot period in the friendship between Alice, who was the middle daughter of the Christ Church dean, and Charles Dodgson, a mathematician with social difficulties who had a penchant for photographing (in portraits as well as allegorical tableaux) the young children with whom he had close friendships.

In the late nineteenth century, relationships between adults and children were not considered strange or inappropriate, whereas chaperones were required if the girls were beyond puberty. Charles Dodgson generally drifted away from his young friends as they reached their teens, though he stayed in touch with a few after they had grown up. There is no evidence that he ever abused a child, but his letters are full of longing and gentle flirtation. To Gertrude Chattaway, in 1875, he wrote,

“My dear Gertrude,
This really will not do, you know, sending one more kiss every time by post: the parcel gets so heavy it is quite expensive. When the postman brought in the last letter, he looked quite grave…
“Mind you don’t get any more such letters,” he said, “at least, not from that particular little girl. I know her well, and she’s a regular bad one!” That’s not true, is it? I don’t believe he ever saw you, and you’re not a bad one, are you? However, I promised him we would send each other very few more letters – “Only two thousand four hundred and seventy, or so,” I said. “Oh!” he said, “a little number like that doesn’t signify. What I meant is, you mustn’t send many.”
So you see we must keep count now, and when we get to two thousand four hundred and seventy, we mustn’t write any more, unless the postman gives us leave.
I sometimes wish I was back on the shore at Sandown; don’t you?
Your loving friend,
Lewis Carroll

There has been endless speculation about the nature of his relationship with Alice Liddell and her two sisters. Dodgson was certainly fascinated by the Liddell girls, and he spent years visiting and photographing them. Alice’s gaze in these pictures is one of unnerving self-regard: narcissistic and confident, comfortable with the camera, obnoxiously aware of her own charisma. Vanessa Tait captures this beautifully, using family stories to accentuate a fictionalised portrait of a little girl who is monstrously selfish and controlling, the vortex around whom everyone’s unhappiness revolves.

The Looking Glass House is told in the voice of Mary Prickett, the Liddells’s beleaguered governess. Mary, an unmarried woman in her late twenties, is terrified of Mrs Liddell and in thrall to the children, who are by turns disrespectful and sullenly obedient. She longs for the dignity and financial autonomy that comes with marriage, but at the beginning of the novel has no prospects in that direction; her working-class background, lack of education, and unfashionably thin frame make her worthless in the marriage market, at least according to her mother. In spite of her social disadvantages, though, she firmly (and admirably) sees herself as the heroine of her own story. She is drawn with enormous sympathy in stark contrast to Alice, who is described as deliciously vile, a petulant brat who feeds off the attention of others. Tait builds up Alice’s character over the course of the novel into one of the best villains I have ever encountered. When Dodgson begins developing a tentative friendship with Mary, Alice jealously draws him to herself, and insults and humiliates Mary at every opportunity, but with enough subtlety not to be caught at it and punished by her mother. Eventually Mary’s composure cracks, and, in a moment of utter triumph, she slaps Alice across the face. I wanted to cheer. It was a far cry from the Alice of Alice in Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll’s books are referenced frequently in The Looking Glass House. Because the novel condenses the Liddells’s friendship with Dodgson into one year from the original seven, Tait has plenty of anecdotes to choose from, and many of them involve hints at what is to come in the books that grew out of Dodgson’s relationship with the girls. It is impossible to know whether his ideas for Alice in Wonderland came to him in the ways suggested in the novel (many of them seem to be Mary’s own observations), but it is a very enjoyable device nonetheless.

There comes a point in Dodgson’s real-life diaries when he abruptly stops visiting the Liddells. It is unclear why; some sources suggest that Mrs Liddell was angered by rumours of a relationship between Dodgson and the children’s governess, while others hint at a discovery of inappropriate contact. Perhaps his too-frequent visits became an irritation to the girls’ parents. Tait reimagines the incident in a delicious climax, the culmination of every small humiliation that Alice has visited on her governess. Mary, who has rejected the proposal of the hairy haberdasher Mr Wilton because she has convinced herself that Dodgson might be romantically interested in her, has all her hopes dashed when she overhears Alice and Dodgson laughing at her behind her back. Suddenly Alice is the barrier to Mary’s potential happiness, and she takes her revenge by planting a monstrous idea in Mrs Liddell’s mind, immediately ending Dodgson’s access to the family.

Mary, despite her generally downtrodden life, is full of hope and desires, and it is impossible not to root for her. The postscript is very satisfying: later in life, after the point at which the novel ends, she marries a tavern owner and gains significant status and financial autonomy — perhaps even love.

In his journals, Charles Dodgson prayed for the healing of “the inclinations of my sinful heart”, and there is no doubt that he was tormented by something, though we may never know whether it was, in fact, paedophilia. Vanessa Tait goes some way towards exonerating Dodgson, whose child friendships the modern world would have viewed with so much suspicion. With his nervous stutter and desperation for friendship, he is poignantly rendered, and for a short time he and Mary do seem to have a meaningful friendship. Tait must have known about the letter to Marion Richards that Dodgson wrote in 1882, in which he said, “I have a good many friends among governesses – having a sort of sympathy with them, as a more or less down-trodden race.”

The mid-nineteenth-century world Tait has created is fabulously detailed and evocative, the dialogue idiomatic and each character carefully observed — it is a joy to read, as easy to fall into as the famous rabbit hole. More importantly, though, The Looking Glass House is a completely fresh take on a well-worn story from an unexpected source, and it provides the kind of imaginative insight into the personalities of Alice, Dodgson, and Mary Prickett of which straight biography is simply not capable.

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Esther Brazil is a mezzo-soprano – she tweets as @estherdbrazil

Vanessa Tait, The Looking Glass House (Atlantic, London, 2015) ISBN 9781782396543, hardback, 304 pages.

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