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.

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Scattergun execution

alice-liddell_
Alice Liddell in the 1860s

Gregory Maguire After Alice
Headline 2016 (2015)

The title is the absolute epitome of what this novel is: a kaleidoscope of conflicting contradictions. Is it a literal description of us readers following Alice and the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole? Is After Alice instead an acknowledgement that we can’t ever return to the state of innocence that was children’s literature before the world experienced Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Or rather is it a modern retelling based on Alice, a meditation on the themes the classic suggests but rewritten for a 21st-century readership? Perhaps it is all of these things, or even none of them.

In fact, is it about Alice at all? Was the Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland the historical Alice Liddell or merely a literary persona, and are any of these the same as the Alice of Maguire’s novel, whom we discover is actually one Alice Clowd? As Carroll’s Alice remarked, curiouser and curiouser. Lots of questions, then, in search of answers.

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The photographer and the beggar maid

Simon Winchester The Alice behind Wonderland
Oxford University Press 2011

A century and a half ago, in July 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in a limited edition by Oxford University Press — and then immediately withdrawn because Tenniel was dissatisfied with the reproduction of his illustrations. Although it wasn’t until November 1865 that the second edition appeared (approved by both author and illustrator, this time under the Macmillan imprint which had published Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies two years before) be prepared for a slew of media trumpeting and Wonderland brouhaha this summer. Nevertheless, it’s an opportune moment to review this short study of Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s two most famous fantasies.

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