Childhood’s dreams

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/

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17 thoughts on “Childhood’s dreams

  1. Pingback: Childhood’s dreams — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. It could be, but I’m not entirely convinced that you wouldn’t do better to read the original two books, or at least the first Alice.

      However, if you want to include the background to the stories I’d recommend Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice — this includes both books, Tenniel’s illustrations and notes in the margins explaining the context, allusions, jokes and parodies, plus a whole lot more.

      It’s been through several editions so you should be able to pick it up secondhand, if not new.

  2. Sounds like an intriguing read… And I do so enjoy the two Alice books – though I preferred them without the context 😉 My TBR list is getting longer and longer!

    1. Ah, the innocent reader approach, untempered by experience — which, don’t get me wrong, has much to recommend it — but is there such a beast? Don’t we all bring our experiences and prejudices to bear on that first reading, making it less innocent than at first appears? 🙂

      My wife is, temperamentally, the innocent visitor abroad while I prefer to have read up guidebooks and histories beforehand; if we’re visiting some dusty museum or cathedral (she gets asthma) I whizz round beforehand, noting additional features and then give her a quick guided tour of highlights I’ve picked out.

      Conversely, she books the hotels after in-depth research, while I sit back and enjoy her choices — the perfect combo of innocence and experience!

      1. Well, I was probably about 9 when I first read Alice, and was all into the absurd, insane journey as if it was real 😉 If we can talk of innocence of the reader, that was as close to it as it can get 😉

        But to clarify, I’m very satisfied to have picked up the many allusions and jokes of Alice… later on – what I could have well do without was the whole tangled mess between real Alice and her tutor, and her family 😉

        1. Yes, the story is all — there’s a strong argument that a tale must, as it were, stand on its own two feet and not require to be supported by a paraphernalia of explanations and justifications.

  3. Hmmm. Frankly, I’m not sure how I’d engage this. On the one hand I appreciate a fresh perspective on an old story, but…hmm. Sometimes I just want the child’s imaginative adventure than the struggle with slender means.

    That, and I deal with little brats all the time, so reading about someone else dealing with kids does not appeal to my need for escapist lit. 😉 Sounds like a fine fit for others, though! xxxx

    1. I know what you mean, Jean — except in my case it was dealing with others’ little kids in the classroom that stopped me wanting to read novels about teaching! [Frank McCourt, your memoir on teaching was tedious, and I almost wish I’d never read it.]

      However, this novel was more about Mary Prickett’s growing infatuation with Charles Dodgson than much to do with her being a governess, playing on the trope of ‘a woman scorned’ more than on the river trip that resulted in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

      But by all means give this a miss if it doesn’t appeal, I found it mildly interesting but not a novel I’d plan to reread.

      1. Ah, I see–thanks for the clarification! I’ve never read McCourt’s memoir on teaching–Angela’s Ashes was dark enough. but I HATE reading teachery stuff, so I’ll just walk on by that one, methinks. 😉

        1. I’ve not read Angela’s Ashes (and may never, I’d heard it was dark) but wouldn’t honestly recommend Teacher Man either — and especially to teachers — not because it isn’t good in places (and it is) but because us educators and ex-educators have enough gripes and anecdotes of our own about the whole experience to bother about someone else’s… 😁

          1. Precisely. I read FAIL U., which is a criticism of the American higher education system, but I do NOT need to read the gripes of other teachers themselves. I have plenty of friends and relatives in the profession. I know aaaaaaaaaall the gripes already. 🙂
            I had to read Angela’s Ashes in graduate school. HATED it. Even John Williams’ score for the film adaptation is depressing.

  4. This sounds interesting. I read Vanessa Tait’s latest book, The Pharmacist’s Wife, earlier this year and have been curious about this one. I loved the Alice novels as a child and have read a little bit about Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson, but nothing about the governess.

    1. I thought the name sounded familiar, Helen, and it may have been from your review — I must go back and read it! As for the governess, I knew there were rumours about her and Dodgson, but that was about it.

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