Vanessa Tait: The Looking Glass House
Corvus 2016 (2015)
Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.
That “childish story” composed “all in the golden afternoon” that has been the springboard for so many studies, films and novels receives a new treatment in Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House: the wellspring of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Liddell sisters’ governess, Mary Prickett, about whom we know relatively little.
What gives added interest to this version is that the author is the great-granddaughter of Alice herself, with access to documents and family traditions from which to draw. Ultimately, though, the question is whether this stands on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right.
Though this deals with the circumstances surrounding the composition of Alice in Wonderland in the summer of 1862, the title The Looking Glass House speaks as much to the second Alice novel, Through the Looking Glass (1871). As you might expect of a story that deals with Miss Prickett’s reflections, mirrors — both physical and metaphorical — recur throughout the pages, and just as with mirrors those reflections are only a false represention of what is real: the reversed image typifies what at first Mary Prickett imagines is happening (but which is not) and then what is engineered to appear to be the case (but which again is not).
And here’s the thing: Dodgson had specifically intended the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass to be “the concentrated essence of all governesses!” and in 1886 declared her to be “formal and strict, yet not unkindly” — hardly unconnected with the character of the Liddells’ governess, surely. A year before that book’s publication Mary Prickett, now nearly forty, had finally left the Liddells’ service to be married.
So, the fictional Mary is loosely based on the real Mary but, like a good author, Tait tries to get into her head and that of course relies on imagination. The rumours that Charles Dodgson was secretly courting the governess circulated in Oxford at the time, and we observe how Mary might have imagined this to be the case. Tait invents an alternative suitor, an adherent of a Pentecostal sect who complicates matters, but for a woman like her who was then thirty years old there was every chance of her becoming an ‘old maid’ unless suitable suitors took an interest.
While Mary is at the core of the book she is joined there by the formidable Mrs Liddell as well as by Charles Dodgson and the three sisters, of whom the petulant Alice is by far the dominating character. The changing dynamic of Mary, Dodgson, Alice and Mrs Lorina Liddell is what pushes this novel forward, and in particular the conundrum of the relationship of the curate and the Dean’s daughter and whether that led to the eventual break between the Liddells and Dodgson. Tait cleverly plays on the relationship, using a supposed revelation to precipitate the final denouement.
The novel breathes new life into a story that has been analysed almost to extinction over a century and a half. There have been informative studies (such as The Alice behind Wonderland) and variable fictional treatments (After Alice, for example) but little that has featured the governess directly. Tait writes sympathetically but not judgmentally about her fictional Miss Prickett, exploring the sort of things that might have obsessed and affected her as an unmarried woman of slender means.
A postscript gives the historical background and helps to disentangle fact and fiction, but the lasting impression in The Looking Glass House is of a woman who suddenly turns from being reactive to proactive. Whether her action is for better or for worse is for the reader to puzzle out: and as puzzles, and word games, and stories are all emblematic of the Alice novels that’s not entirely inappropriate.
2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book based on a true story
Vanessa Tait blog: http://www.vanessatait.co.uk/blog/