Writing a fictional account of a very real person's life is a tricky endeavor - it also complicates the reviewing process. I've read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but all I really knew about Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was the fact that he was a mathematician. That being the case, I've tried very hard not to let this fictional treatment of the man influence my opinion of him - especially since this is a rather unsettling account of his relationship with young Alice Liddell. We know that, as a young mathematics lecturer at Oxford, he enjoyed a special relationship with young Alice for seven years - then, the Liddells made it clear that they did not want Dodgson spending any more time with them or their eleven-year-old daughter. The reasons for this sudden break are shrouded in a bit of mystery, and those are the facts that I hold to. What Katie Roiphe has done is to take the known facts and construct a fascinating story around them. She may be right on the money - or she may be way off base. The important thing to remember is that Still She Haunts Me is essentially a work of fiction.
Some readers may be disturbed by the story Roiphe tells in these pages. Some will look at Dodgson's passionate, confused feelings for Alice as borderline depravity, while others will see something strangely beautiful about the relationship. Dodgson is an incredibly complicated character in this novel. He meets Alice when he is nearing thirty and she is four years old, and he clearly grows to love her in some remarkable fashion over the ensuing seven years. She is forbidden fruit, something he can cling to yet never really grab hold of. There is nothing conclusively sexual about his feelings at all, though - in my interpretation. To me, Dodgson worships the beauty and simplicity of childhood - the innocence of childhood. He's a lonely man living a sheltered life, and Alice becomes a symbol for the kind of happy, carefree life he would dearly love to live himself. Afflicted with a stuttering problem, Dodgson is withdrawn and incredibly private; what he cannot experience with adults he can live with and through her. His life and his naïve love for Alice are as much symbolic as real.
An accomplished amateur photographer, Dodgson delights in taking picture after picture of Alice, capturing the essence of her in the camera's lens, seeking to preserve her childhood for all time. He sends her an abundance of notes, some of them in secret (yet easily decipherable) code. He tells her poems and stories in order to please her. It is there that Alice's Adventures Under Ground (which would later become Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) was born, as Alice insisted he write the story down for her.
Then the sudden break from the Liddell family takes place. Roiphe makes a compelling case for what might have happened, but I think she takes a little too much liberty with the story here. What has been a disturbing yet naively sweet relationship suddenly takes on a much darker cast. For the first time, Roiphe introduces quotes from Dodgson's letters that are entirely of her own making, and her description of Dodgson's reaction to his dismissal from the Liddell household also seems a little too sensational. This may not bother some readers, but it does me. Here and only here, Dodgson's relationship with Alice grows undeniably disturbing.
The truth of the matter seems to be obscured forever by the mists of time, especially since Dodgson (and/or his heirs) removed the relevant sections of his journals. (Recently, evidence - rather scanty evidence, if you ask me - has surfaced indicating the break with the Liddells had nothing to do with Alice whatsoever.) As a work of fiction, Still She Haunts Me does indeed prove haunting - and extremely compelling. This is a novel that will evoke an emotional response of one type or another from every reader. You just have to remember that this is a novel, not a biographical account of the unique relationship that gave birth to two extraordinary works of children's literature.
on April 16, 2002
I give this book three stars due to its writing style and its focus on character study; otherwise I fear it might have gotten lower.
The writing quality is certainly far, far above the average paperback, and even above some novels classified by your neighborhood bookstore as literary fiction.
I also really love a character study. Deep, deep characterization is the grail for me. Unfortunately, although the author made a VERY good go at it (the research and effort alone must have been tremendous), she doesn't hit the bulls eye. Everything is there; the habits, the emotions, even the sympathy for the main character... and still one does not feel they have been there, in the middle of Dodgson's soul. The reader hovers just outside Dodgson, examining him from all (external) angles.
The plot is not necessarily slow; really, in terms of Dodgson's interactions with Alice, it goes at just the right pace. I appreciated the few times the author lets us see Dodgson outside the college or Hunt's office -- at a photography exhibition, for instance. And still, in whole, the entire book seems to drag a little. One reason for this is Mrs. Liddell's remarkably slow reaction time. She suspects something is not quite right in the situation between Dodgson and her child, but her maternal instinct does not kick in other than to give her some deep thoughts. She takes no action until she finds nude photographs of Alice. Though this book takes place in another era, I can't see a mother during ANY period letting a suspicous fellow near her child.
In fact, the author uses Mrs. Liddell's point of view several times, a treat I think the book could definitely do without. It adds nothing to the story; if anything, it detracts from it.
The beginning of the book is wonderfully done -- the first page, when Dodgson receives the notes stating he cannot see Alice again -- draws one into the story with sympathies wide open.
The one scene I could have definitely done without is right near the end. It starts out with supreme promise, especially after slogging through the book's length and Dodgson's anxieties. Dodgson, beside himself with grief over the situation (the book has returned full circle to its beginning, and the note) slowly overdoses on tincture of opium. This is, suprisingly, (as well as being sad) positively titillating after chapters of bemoaning self-analysis and narrow focus. Alas, the scene slowly slides into a farce, a parody of the entire book. Character from Alice in Wonderland show up, scold Dodgson, and we are only rescued from this less-than-credible debacle by the arrival of Hunt.
A worthy effort, but it just doesn't quite get it.
on September 12, 2013
To begin with I almost didn't get to read this thought-provoking and well-written book.Why?Because the seller in question either did not ship it or did and it became lost in the mail.Who can tell,since the seller ,by his/her own admission,ships too many items to be bothered by something as practical as a tracking number...
..be this as it may I resorted to the library to obtain a copy to read,and I am glad that I did...Ms.Roiphe is an excellent writer,even when tackling a problem as delicate as the relationship between 10 year old Alice Liddel and 30ish Oxford don,photographer and author Lewis Carroll(real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)..Little Alice became the "Alice"in "Alice in wonderland",a book written for her by Dodgson and fashioned,after the nonsense stories he used to tell her.
Dodgson liked to photograph children,especially little girls.Often the resulting images suggested that Dodgson's interests were more than just those of an artist and his little models..Alice was one of the children of Henry and Lorina Liddell.Henry Liddell was then dean at Oxford,an innovator determined to change the look and the atmosphere of the college,while Dodgson was a traditionalist and in opposition to most of what Liddell had in mind.
Dodgston's relationship with little Alice was special...many of his photographs of the young girl suggest a transformation ,from girlhood into young womanhood...Some,like"The peasant girl"suggested more,in that Alice is dressed in a somewhat revealing manner,just the sort of thing that today we might possible call inappropriate,if not an example(albeit a mild one)of child pornography..In any event this picture and others like it were disturbing enough,given that the model was not some street urchin but one of the children of the very respectable dean of Oxford college(yes,a double standard existed then even as,in many cases it still exists today)..
While a work of fiction,much of the work written for the most part from Dodgston's point of view,and as the text clearly shows ,often in words gleaned from Dodgston's actual letters and journals,that he was very interested in Alice,perhaps even infatuated. with her..Ms.Roiphe navigates this situation skillfully,even if,in the end,her conclusions are more in the realm of conjecture than fact..Some from among the political correctness crowd will find the idea of a possible closet pedophile(the main word here being POSSIBLE)being portrayed sympatheticly to be an outrage,while those who insist that Dodgston was no such thing will be equally outraged because it is suggested that his interest in Alice was"unnatural".
In reality the Liddells broke off their relationship with Dodgston when Alice was about eleven going on twelve.No credible reason has ever been put forward as to why this break happened,but the notion that Dodgston in some way took advantage of Alice has been put forward from the very start.Other upper class parents continued to allow Dodgston to photograph their little girls,so the real reason behind the break may not be anything"unnatural"at all..Victorian-era celebrities also consented to be photographed by Dodgston,which would hardly be the case had Dodgston taken any liberties with Alice or with any of Dean Liddell's other female children..still,certain of Dodgston's papers were destroyed,papers pertaining to this period in his life,thus giving rise to the question of why,if there was no blame attaching did the Liddell parents suddenly exclude Dodgston from their association..
Ms.Roiphe tries to address all of these questions and more in this well written work.
on October 3, 2002
Katie Roiphe's novel of the relationship between Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell (for whom he wrote Alice's adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking-glass) is one of the most beautifully-written books I've read in some time. The questions surrounding the relationship are long-standing - was Dodgson's obsession with Alice grounded in innocence or in lust (even if repressed)? How did Alice herself view the relationship, both as it was happening and, as she grew older, in retrospect? There is mention of a reference to Dodgson by Alice, written for a magazine when she was in her 80s, that is warm and sentimental - but even in this reference, she mentions the fact that all of the letters Dodgson wrote to her when she was a child were destroyed by her mother. This novel might not answer these questions completely and thoroughly - how, indeed, could it do that, given the passage of time and the destruction of crucial `evidence' - but it seems that Roiphe has done her very extensive research with accuracy in mind, and the results make for an extremely readable, compelling and moving story.
Like any relationship that involves even a hint of the possibility of child abuse or pedophilia, there are undercurrents and subtleties swimming just beneath the surface of the more obvious events and emotions. The story of Dodgson and Alice raises questions as questions are answered. The mathematics lecturer met Alice and her family (her father was his dean at Oxford) when the girl was only four years old, and remained close to the Liddells until Alice was eleven, when events caused the tensions which had been simmering for seven years to boil over. There was very obviously some degree of discomfort on the part of Alice - despite her honest affection for Dodgson and his attentions - that was harder and harder for her to contain as she approached adolescence. As she became less and less of a little girl and more of a young woman, she found it difficult not only to reconcile her feelings for and about Dodgson, but to come to grips with the natural changes occurring within her own psyche and body - a transition that's difficult at best, challenging each of us as a rite of passage into adulthood.
Like another reviewer, I had some serious and deep-rooted questions about Alice's mother's ongoing reaction to Dodgson's attentiveness to her middle daughter. She expresses misgivings about it from the beginning, mostly based on `gut' feelings and motherly instinct. Why in the world would a mother experiencing any misgivings about another adult spending time with one of her children not look into the matter more thoroughly and take action to prevent lasting emotional damage to her child? The answer to this perhaps lies in the age in which the events took place. While pedophilia undoubtedly occurred then as it does now, I'm sure it wasn't given the media attention it receives today, especially considering what was considered `discussable' in Victorian England - and that's a shame, in hindsight, because we know today that open discussion of this (and other) atrocities in our society can help to prevent their occurrence as well as aid in the healing of those who have been victimized.
In the end, whether Dodgson's obsession was innocent or lustful, what really matters is its effect on the subject - a young girl flattered by the attentions and affections of an adult, led into a relationship that becomes `curiouser and curiouser', more and more confusing, as it progresses. There are countless cases of children being emotionally scarred for life that began with `all good intentions'. The novel doesn't paint Dodgson as a monster at all - but the damage done to this little girl (and to numberless others before and since), the results of his actions, is the thing by which he should be judged, not his intentions.
While Roiphe's wonderful novel might not address these questions directly, it certainly makes their presence in the overall scheme of the story known - they are there, just below the surface, moving the characters and story just as if they were characters themselves. This skillful weaving of surface and subliminal plot and action is one of the things that make this such a great piece of writing.
on November 27, 2001
What a haunting novel. Set in 1850s Oxford, this novel is infused with a feeling of things coming to an end. Sadly, like a summer turning to fall. Charles Dodson/ Lewis Carroll is achingly pathetic, and wins our sympathy. Little Alice is bewitching. The novel contains researched speculation as to what happened to cause a rift between Dodson and the Liddell family, but it seems that the friendship of Dodson and Alice was doomed already-- she had to grow up. I haven't read "Alice in Wonderland" since I was a child; I'm reading it now. This beautifully-written novel is like a dream. Weird, frightening and somehow hyper-real.
on May 9, 2004
Katie Roiphe's book raises critical questions which concern not only the relationship between Dodgson and Alice Liddell, but the very idea of attraction between humans.
That he was attracted to Alice, to the point of obsession, is not in question. Was he sexually attracted to her? In truth, we can never know, but in examining the nature of attraction, especially in the light of the 20 year age difference, we are lead into many interesting areas.
Katie Roiphe's projection that he finally made the quantum leap into photographing Alice naked, as he had done with other young girls, is not entirely unreasonable. The reclining nude 'study' of Evelyn Hatch is one of the few surviving examples of his child nude phase. Apparently he took a substantial number of child nude photographs, of which only perhaps four have survived.
Whether the attraction was based on past-life karma, mere aesthetics or something darker is again unknown. His sexual attraction to an eleven year old Alice is not unthinkable as there is an inevitable level of male biological response to the presence of sexually maturing females, based on a simple reproductive urge. While there is no estrus response as such in humans, there will be other factors, other signals, which trigger attraction and the equivalent of a mating ritual.
His attraction of whatever kind to the four year old Alice, is more problematic. Given his ability to think in child-like fantasy terms, as evinced by the books, it may be that at some level, the four year old in Carroll had a simple crush on the young Alice, and that simultaneously he projected her future development into adult form as a possible future soul mate.
There is still debate over whether he actually proposed to the eleven year old Alice, and whether this, rather than the nude photography, may have been the final straw for her family.
Whatever the reality may have been, Roiphe's story is challenging and well developed, and not entirely unsympathetic to his situation, projected or otherwise. Roiphe's view seems to be that even if he was sexually attracted to her, he did at least control himself.
For me, the bottom line in terms of the real world, is that if there is a male hanging around your family 'because he loves children so much', there is a 99% chance he has pedophile tendencies and should not be trusted under any circumstances.
The downside of Carroll/Dodgson is that he was a pompous oaf, who wrote very condescendingly about others, imagining that he could charm his way into the lives of an infinite number of young girls and their often witless parents.
Was he a calculating monster? I think not. Was he in love with Alice? Yes. Were his attentions and the form they took excessive? Yes.
Somewhere in between those who dismiss him as a pedophile and those who would completely whitewash his disturbing obsessions, may well lie the truth.
on October 2, 2009
I feel that Roiphe has capitalized on the celebrity value of Charles Dodgson to sell her story. Anyone who knows anything about the real life of Dodgson is aware that she has distorted this man's life very cruelly. Nabokov wrote a fantastic book on a similar subject to Roiphe but it sold on its own merits not on the celeb value.
I didn't think the book was badly written,but there is nothing that makes it special - other than the fact it has hitched a ride on Dodgson's coat tails
on March 7, 2008
Katie Roiphe's novel, Still She Haunts Me, is about Lewis Carroll's relationship with Alice Pleasance Liddell, the young girl who was Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. This novel is both well-researched and well-written. Using excerpts from Carroll's own diaries, letters and poetry, Ms. Roiphe creates a fictional tapestry of infatuation, guilt-ridden obsession and latent pedophilia. The novel's title is from Carroll's acrostic poem spelling out Alice's full name.
Ms. Roiphe's fictional Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Carroll's real name) is a masterwork of character development. He is a man of the Victorian Era - moralistic, somewhat intolerant of others' perceived moral failings, and tortured by his own fantasies and weaknesses. His character is sympathetically-drawn throughout much of the book, necessarily becoming pathetic and ultimately something beyond pathos toward the book's end. To Ms. Roiphe's credit, the book is tasteful and is beautifully-written. The prologue's analogy of Dodgson's yearning, horror and regret to that of Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream as she comes out of her enchantment is nothing short of exquisite.
It is hard to swallow that a parent would allow a young adult male almost unrestricted daily access to a small child for any length of time, let alone seven years depicted in this book. The parental response, or lack thereof, to this unusual and disturbing relationship is the one flaw that I noted in this otherwise fine first novel.
on December 30, 2001
Katie Roiphe provided a wonderful read. It led to an interesting discussion between friends about the factual content, but regardless, it was a lush, poetic and creative spin on the story of C. L. Dodgson and young Alice Liddell. 4 stars for the beauty of the words, the riveting imagery and the strong development of character.
on December 22, 2001
I don't think I was a clever child. I never appreciated Alice in Wonderland, and although parts were funny to me, I thought it was gruesome and silly. Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, based his books on stories he crafted for a young girl child, and their sophistication reflects the clever mind of that child.
There is lingering controversy about the true nature of Dodgson's relationship with Alice Liddell, the little girl who was his muse for his timeless books on the literary figure of Alice.
Was the author a shy, stuttering mathematician who was a social misfit at best and a paedophile at worst? Do we ascribe evil thoughts to his obsession with the young Alice (honi soit qui mal y pense) from our cynical perches in the 21st century? Perhaps in a way that is our own ironic mirroring of the Victorian penchant for classifying everything; we have to label this man who was merely a talented amateur photographer in an age when the medium was new, and who simply enjoyed telling clever stories to clever little girls. Or was he?
Somewhere, in a reference I can no longer find, I read that Dodgson had photographed several little girls in the nude, and that their parents were aware of it in at least some of the cases, implying they considered this an art form. From the same source I read that Dodgson, behaving honourably, eventually gave all originals and copies back to the girls' families.
Author Roiphe chooses to portray Dodgson as a bumbling mathematics instructor who becomes fixated upon the young daughter of the dean at Christ Church Oxford. The writer raises as many questions as she answers, and once or twice she seems to be too enhanced with her own figures of speech.
But the book is first and foremost a good read, and Roiphe knows her milieu. This is the archetypal Victorian ambience, where any phrase with the slightest aura of suggestiveness is spoken in French ("sans habillement" for nude, for instance) and even many phrases that are not. Bowdlerism is in style (dare I say de rigeur ?). Dodgson considers the expurgated version of Shakespeare written by the Bowdlers in 1818, which deleted or replaced words and phrases considered too vulgar for the delicate reader. He decides that it is not delicate enough, and contemplates producing an even purer version for little girls.
Roiphe's Dodgson does not, as some writers claim the real man did, lust after grown, married women. The pursuit presumably proved that he was a real man of normal masculine appetite. Even if this is true, it could be be argued that a man who chases only safely married women may be insecure and deficient regarding the opposite sex.
Were Alice Liddell's parents terribly innocent, or perhaps not careful enough of their daughters' (and Alice's in particular) relationship with this gifted, tongue-tied young man who seemed to hang around all the time? In this book, Mrs. Liddell freezes Dodgson out completely when she discovers the nude photos of Alice that had been hidden in her daughter's bedroom. In real life there must have been at least some genuine confrontation, as an 80-year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves would recall that her mother tore up all the letters Dodgson had sent her when she was a child.
Roiphe just hints at a flirtation between Dodgson and opium, in the guise of the then-socially acceptable tincture of laudanum. Some of the images in his books almost seem drug-induced. But it could be just a result of Dodgson's very fertile imagination. ("Such an imagination you have, Mr. Dodgson!" Mrs. Liddell says to him, and her tone is not necessarily complimentary.)
Ultimately Roiphe has produced a master painting of a certain class in a certain time in England. Brilliant writing and a fictional point of view take us into the mind and heart of Charles Dodgson. Whatever else he was or was not, the man wrote wittily, ingeniously, and produced an all-time classic. We close Roiphe's entertaining book and we want to learn more about Dodgson and his contemporaries. Scenes and phrases linger in our minds long after the book has been put down.
This is my definition of a good book.