A review of The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

Author Vanessa Tait explains the inspiration behind her novel,
The Looking Glass House 

Oxford, 1862. As Mary Prickett takes up her post as governess to the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, she is thrust into a strange new world. Mary is poor and plain and desperate for change but the little girls in her care see and understand far more than their naive new teacher. And there is another problem: Mary does not like children, especially the precocious Alice Liddell.

When Mary meets Charles Dodgson, the Christ Church mathematics tutor, at a party at the Deanery, she wonders if he may be the person to transform her life. Flattered by his attentions, Mary begins to believe that she could be more than just an overlooked, dowdy governess.

One sunny day, as Mary chaperones the Liddells on a punting trip, Mr Dodgson tells the story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But Mary is determined to become Mr Dodgson's muse - and will turn all the lives around her topsy-turvey in pursuit of her obsession.
·  Hardcover: 304 pages
·  Publisher: Corvus (2 July 2015)
·  Language: English
·  ISBN-10: 1782396543
·  ISBN-13: 978-1782396543

 The Liddell Sisters sitting outside the deanery garden of Christ Church, Oxford 

Mary Prickett, Governess Liddell Family

This is not your contemporary Alice in Wonderland themed novel. Oh, the story has the usual and most recognizable elements of course, until you start reading. For instance, author, Vanessa Tait introduces real Liddell family governess Mary Prickett. From her perspective and ever so direct vantage point, she takes us along on a journey inside the deanery, Christ Church, Oxford where we meet sisters Ina, Edith and Alice Liddell. Oxford is the main setting where all the action takes place because the sisters are the daughters of Dean of Christ Church, Oxford Henry Liddell and his wife, Mrs. Liddell, Lorina Hanna Liddell.  (Two photographs below: Left, Henry Liddell by Julia Margaret Cameron and on the right his wife, Mrs. Liddell)

What I enjoyed most about, The Looking Glass House is how involved Mrs. Liddell was with her daughters. She was at times overbearing in nature but Vanessa Tait brings her to life interestingly enough with the same 'pricklyness' of character as governess Mary Prickett. You get  a good sense of the father of the house, Henry Liddell who for the most part is mentioned in name and title only. He serves as a spectre almost coming and going to serve the purpose of setting, place and time. 

This novel is a story based upon real people, places and events. Yet, there is no clearly structred chronological timeline to the narration. Even though a year 1862 is mentioned in the opening, you will not find any other years specifically mentioned; not as chapter headings and not even throughout them.  I am so accustomed to having these types of novels including a date and a year next to each chapter heading that it is refereshing not to have them. It makes the reader's mind wander and wonder when certain events start to happen to the main focus Alice Liddell. This does not mean that you have to be familiar with Alice Liddell's real life but if you do just take note that nothing is clear cut for the reader. Just use your imagination and enjoy reading the story

Another aspect of the novel that I truly loved reading about was the subject of photography. As the novel progresses, Mr. and Mrs. Liddell come to meet 'Dodgson' a young man with a stammer when he speaks  and a lilt to his walk. He catches the eye of governess Mary Prickett who seems to be a bit keen on him but dare not admit it. She is not the most attractive of women, plain and still a spinster!  She has her prospects though but I shall leave it to the reader to see what happens to good old 'Pricks' as the girls call her.  

At the climax of the novel, Vanessa Tait addresses the 'questionable' aspect of Alice Liddell's life related to her 'friendship' with Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll. She does this cleverly and through Mrs. Liddell we see some tough love family mother-daughter moments. My heart broke along with Alice but I believe Mrs. Liddell did what a mother does to keep her family in tact I really hope everyone who loved Lewis Carroll's books and photographs reads, 'The Looking Glass House' and finds it captivating and moving. 
“Open your mouth and shut your eyes” by C.L. Dodgson/ Lewis Carroll, July 1860.

'Edith, you sit on the table. You, Ina, stand with your back to her, facing Alice. Good!' 

Mr. Dodgson handed Edith the bag of cherries to hold and gave one to Ina to dangle above Alice's mouth. Alice was to open her mouth as if in the process of receiving it. Then he disappeared into the darkroom that he had set up in the Deanery's broom cupboard, and reappeared carrying a glass plate, which he pushed into the back of the camera. It did seem magical, thought Mary, to be able to crystallize the exact image of a thing on to a photographic plate, as if spirits had got in.  

The camera was in front of Mary on it s three spindly legs, its great eye staring at the cathedral.  Mr. Dodgson stooped and pulled the hood over his shoulders, then reached round and pulled off the cap.  Mr. Dodgson fidgeted and stepped from foot to foot, each movement sending a minute ripple down his trouser legs.  How many seconds did it take to make a photograph? Time beat in a slow pulse at her temples." 

 "It seemed it was usual to follow Mr. Dodgson into the broom cupboard to see the photograph being brought to life, but when she went in,Mary found the place unrecognizable. It still smelt of dust, but in front of that now there was a tang of something else, a sharper smell. The brooms had been cleared away and glass funnels and trays stacked in their place. The skylight had been covered with a black square of material and a subterranean gloom hung over the room, in which Mr. Dodgson moved with an urgency and fluidity mary had not noticed before. He reached up and poured a strong-smelling liquid into one basin and quickly thrust the glass plate into it. 

They all stared down into the basin. Slowly something began to emerge, a light patch in the middle of the plate. 
'Oh look, here come my teeth!' said Alice. 'That is not your teeth, Alice, that is your hair. Your teeth and dress will be black, and your lips and hair white. It is all reversed - negative into positive, positive into negative.' 'Is that why the plate is called a glass negative? asked Ina.  'Exactly so, yes. When I make a print from it, it is all turned round back to normal.'

'We have something here, I think,' said Mr. Dodgson. 'This will make a fine photograph. Excellent even. A story, entire and complete.' He leant down and kissed Alice on the top of her head, then Ina, then Edith. 'For once to have achieved what I set out to do in the morning is most satisfying.' 

Thank you for my review copy, Corvus Books UK/Atlantic Books UK

The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait is now published in the UK. To purchase, Amazon UK

The US publishing date is April 1, 2016.


Pamela Britley said…
I have added this to my books to read list. Great review!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Pamela,
I hope you like The Looking Glass House.
Thanks for commenting.
Kevin Marsh said…
How fascinating, it must be amazing to find all that history documented in your house. I loved the video with Vanessa discussing the inspiration behind her novel.
Kimberly Eve said…
Yes, it must be great to have all that history documented.
Thanks for commenting, Kevin!