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Still She Haunts Me: A Novel of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell Paperback – October 1, 2002
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“A love story in gothic blues...Its algebraic elegance casts a sweeping light on the surreal and cruel elements of the ‘Alice’ books, allowing us to read, as it were, between the lines.”—Los Angeles Times
“Rich and inspired...[An] ambitious and engaging piece of fiction.”—Chicago Tribune
From the Inside Flap
idge Dodgson was a shy Oxford mathematician, reverend, and pioneering photographer. Under the pen name Lewis Carroll he wrote two stunning classics that liberated childrens literature from the constraints of Victorian moralism. But the exact nature of his relationship with Alice Liddell, daughter of the dean of his college, and the young girl who was his muse and subject, remains mysterious.
Dodgson met Alice in 1856, when she was almost four years old. Eventually he would capture her in his photographs, and transform the stories he told her into the luminous Alices Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Then, suddenly, when Alice was eleven, the Liddell family shut him out, and his relationship with Alice ended abruptly. The pages from Dodgsons diary that may have explained the rift have disappeared.
In imagining what might have happened, Katie Roiphe has created a deep, textured portrait of Alice and Dodgson:
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Many critics have relegated Carroll to simply being a member of the Victorian cult of the child. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he simply craved the remembered but untouchable unknown of his youth, finding a way to recover it in Alice and other little girls (for more about this, see Robson's Men in Wonderland). It is possible and the idea of men recovering childhood through relationships with children certainly comes up often enough in Victorian novels. We will never know, but I am happy that this author doesn't try to run away from the possibility that the author of one of the best-known stories could have been a sexual deviant. In the end, regardless of what happened that resulted in Carroll being barred from the Liddell home, this novel is an artistic and well-written story that succeeds beyond the usual biofic.
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.
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.