02 December 2015

The Looking Glass House

Readers who love Alice in Wonderland will delight in this fictional telling of the relationship between young Alice Liddell and Christ Church mathematics tutor Charles Dodgson, who would eventually publish under the pen name Lewis Carroll.

The Looking Glass House is told through the eyes of Mary Prickett, governess to Alice and her sisters. Mary is a real person in history but much of her narrative is fictional. Mary aspires to an increase in station, one she hopes to gain from her association with the Liddell family, the most important family in Oxford.

The role of governess quickly proves limited and tedious. Her charges are unappreciative, her life is bland and her suitor Mr Wilson is much less than she desires and feels she deserves.

Mr Dodgson gradually becomes part of the family and develops a close relationship with Alice. Mary looks at the educated, cultured young teacher with different eyes, mistaking his eagerness to be included in Liddle family occasions as an expression of his interest in herself.

Mr Dodgson is fascinated by young children and in particular Alice. He takes her photo, writes her letters professing his affection and lavishes her with attention. One lazy afternoon on a boat trip down the river, Alice demands a story.

“Alice,’ he said. His voice was unsure. “Alice… Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting on the riverbank and of having nothing to do.”

Mary sabotages the friendship by presenting it in an unsavoury light to Mrs Liddell and Charles and Alice are separated. Charles focuses on his stories and the rest is literary history.

Vanessa Tait is Alice Liddell’s granddaughter and provides a section at the end of story explaining what is fact and what is fiction. The two are cleverly and closely woven together as Vanessa had access to family letters and oral history in addition to public references. The fiction has a deliciously believable flavour.

I found the issue of Dodgson’s relationship with Alice thought provoking. It came under scrutiny at the time and led to Mrs Liddell ending his relationship with Alice and her family. While this was portrayed as the result of Mary’s rumor mongering and that the affections was excessive rather than inappropriate, I found myself wondering.

In the summary explanation, Vanessa Tait notes: The gossip at the time in Oxford and the tradition in my family too, was that Dodgson was too fond of Alice. But she decides based on her research that Dodgson’s intentions were not romantic or otherwise but “that does not mean is was not in love with her in his own way.”

I felt visibly relieved that the fairy tale was still intact.

The Looking Glass House is an entertaining read and lovers of historical fiction will thoroughly enjoy it. Fans of Alice in Wonderland will enjoy it even more

Reviewed by Sandy Fussell

Title: The Looking Glass House
Author: Vanessa Tait
Publisher:  Allen & Unwin (Corvus)
Publication Date: August 2015
RRP: $39.99 
Format: Paperback
Type: Adult fiction

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