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Posts tagged ‘Alice in Wonderland’

Book Review: The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

The story of Alice Liddell and the real Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) is one that has inspired so much speculation and analysis since the  creation of Alice in Wonderland in 1862; cover-image-of-looking-glass-house-by-vanessa-taitand here is another book on the subject, The Looking Glass House, this time a novel told by Alice’s great granddaughter Vanessa, which draws on family treasures and stories of the ‘original’ Alice. I found it a convincing picture of a stifled Victorian society with characters suffering from Victorian angst (especially Mrs Liddell and Mary Prickett the governess)  along with a very pert, outspoken Alice and an enigmatic but compelling Mr Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll).

For me, this novel built up a picture of an intense, brilliant young man with a great love for children which never quite tipped over “the edge” (as we would define it today with our 21st century sensibilities), but could easily have done if Victorian restraint had not had such a strong hold on his character. Vanessa Tait’s book depicts the scene in which Mrs Liddell banished Mr Dodgson from the house, thus precipitating the rift between him and the Dean’s family.

Having considered it all I believe that if I had been in Mrs Liddell’s position, I may well have done the same. Alice herself is shown very much as an instigator and provocateur in her relationship with Mr Dodgson. The adult Alice’s silence on the subject throughout the rest of her life is something I could well understand –  as the two Alice books quickly became hugely popular she would have been afraid to tarnish anybody’s vision of the stories by telling the truth about the circumstances in which they were created, which may have been misinterpreted.  Mr Dodgson’s family, too, clearly felt the same, in tearing out of his diary the very pages which cover the time he created the first Alice story.

I was intrigued by the number of Amazon reviewers who gave The Looking Glass House low star ratings and said the book disappointed them, because it was not what they expected. I think they hoped the biographical reality behind it all would fully match up to the enchantment of the stories.  As a writer myself I feel that knowing the biographical reality behind the creation of a story is interesting but in no way defines or encompasses the created story itself. The curious fact is that I identified at different times in the book with Mrs Liddell, Alice, and Mr Dodgson. I admired and enjoyed the pert outspokenness  in Alice which other readers described as brattishness; and felt I could understand Mr Dodgson’s obsessive love for the company of children, and also Mrs Liddell’s fear of allowing the relationship to develop into Alice’s adolescence, and her sudden urge to banish him from the scene.

Above all the book made me feel that as I child I would love to have had a friend like Mr Dodgson because he was the sort of person children love – quirky, entertaining teasing, quixotic, fun, enigmatic.

The Classic Children’s Author: A Sad Person Who Creates an Amazing Character Loved by Millions?

The other day I watched Saving Mr Banks with my film club.

Saving Mr Banks Poster

Saving Mr Banks Poster

Later we had much to discuss about author P.L. Travers and her difficult relationship with Walt Disney throughout his quest to get her to sell him the film rights to her Mary Poppins books.

During our discussion we considered the curious fact that many great children’s authors do have a tragedy in their background, often the death of a parent or a sibling which created trauma. In fact one of our number, who is herself a prolific traditionally published children’s author, reported that she attended a children’s writing conference, and one of her readers said to her: “I’d love to be a successful children’s author, but I don’t think I can, because I haven’t experienced the death of a parent when I was young.”

As I thought about P.L. Travers and her enduring pain about the death of her father, which fed into her character George Banks, and led her to create the magical figure of Mary Poppins who would somehow redeem him, I thought of other great children’s authors who also wrote immortal fiction out of their pain and tragedy; or out of their own inner demons.

We can immediately think of JM Barrie and Peter Pan; of AA Milne and Christopher Robin; and of course Lewis Carroll and Alice.

Lewis Carroll quote

Lewis Carroll quote

Several weeks ago I listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme about Lewis Carroll, and the evidence of his unhealthy interest in little girls, and how he strove to control and manage this (with greater or lesser success at different times). It was also interesting that his own family destroyed certain personal documents to save his future reputation, including vital diaries  and letters written around the time he was intensely involved with Alice and her sisters.

As I was listening to this, I found myself reflecting on what Lewis Carroll had created out of his own personal demons.    Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass will be remembered and loved for as long as there are children around to read stories, and will always testify to Charles Dodgson’s supple genius, making the little girl who inspired him immortal.

A second element of the story is the real Alice herself, and how in her subsequent life she handled this unlooked-for literary  ‘immortality’. Again there is a strong element of sadness there. The older Alice, perhaps, was haunted by a feeling that she had not lived her life in a way truly worthy of the sassy little girl she had once been, who had inspired a creative genius to create a classic of children’s literature.

Life changes, people change, but one thing does not change: the power of the creative imagination.

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