I recently received a review copy of The Looking Glass House, thanks to Lovereading.co.uk. It contained everything I love in a book, so I spoke to the author, Vanessa Tait, about her writing process.
As the great-granddaughter of the Alice who inspired the stories by Lewis Carroll, Tait grew up in Gloucestershire, England, in a house full of Alice’s memorabilia. After school, she studied Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University in London, worked as a freelance journalist for the Times, Tatler, and The London Paper, and also did a number of odd-jobs, including dog-walking, working in a nightclub, and as a barista.
Tait spent more than 10 years working on The Looking Glass House, as well as working on her children, of which she now has three.
It may be clear by now that I love a good historical fiction, and The Looking Glass House is, among other things, exactly that. It transports you back to 1862, to where Mary Prickett is taking up her post as governess to the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church. She soon meets Charles Dodgson, an awkward, academic gentleman, who takes great interest in the children Prickett is in charge of, Alice in particular.
What I loved most about this story is that Alice isn’t the protagonist, or the heroine, or even very likeable. She is, in fact, a spoiled, somewhat manipulative little girl, used to getting her own way. One might expect Alice’s great-granddaughter to write about her in such a way that everyone falls in love with her. But, I suppose, we already have that in Carroll’s books. The Looking Glass House gives a fresh perspective, allowing us to wipe away the magic and beauty of Wonderland, and peep behind the curtains of real life.
Tait is a wonderful storyteller. Her prose is simple yet effective, and her words bring to life the real Alice. Mary Prickett is also a fascinating character, one I would very much like to read more about. Some people may not enjoy this stripping back of magical layers, particularly as it concerns a novel that generations of people have enjoyed, but I, despite being a fan of fantasy and fairy tales, have always adored the stories that show us the harsh reality. The Looking Glass House is fantastic read, which I finished far too quickly.
Like most writers, Tait always wanted to be one.
Nothing else seemed as good a way to spend my working life. Except perhaps to be a member of a girl indie band – which I wanted to do but never had the nerve. I preferred sitting alone, as it turned out!
And it took her a long time to get published.
What I had to learn was to let go of writing for publication and learn instead to enjoy writing only for its own sake. After all, even after the deal is signed there are more hurdles to climb: good reviews, more books to get into print. Once I stopped concentrating so hard on the beautiful sentence and began to be freer, more honest and less afraid of making a mistake, my book came together.
Also – just write, most days. And then rewrite. And rewrite again. It’s not glamorous.
Tait is currently working on another book, where a Victorian woman married to the proprietor of a pharmacy gets addicted to laudanum.
Morphine and cocaine were easily available over the counter in those days and actually morphine was seen as a feminine option – middle class women weren’t allowed to drink and were stuck at home. Boredom and constraint were perfect bedfellows for a laudanum addiction. I’m interested too in how attitudes to drugs have changed over the years. We always think of the Victorians as being so uptight, but they were throwing down things like Vin Mariani, whose main ingredient was cocaine.
So my next book, a Victorian trainspotting.
Dublin festival 17th May
Charleston festival 25th May
Dartington Ways with words in Devon 9th July
Port Eliot Literature festival (date TBC) Idler stage
3rd September Henley literature festival
Knutsford festival October dates TBC
This story in particular was the obvious choice for Tait.
My family had all Alice’s memorabilia kept in a room at the top of the house and I used to go in and try on her opera gloves, or fan myself with her fan. We also kept the priceless glass negatives that Dodgson had taken of her, jumbled on top of one and other, and letters, and actually almost anything to do with her, her cheque stubs, her wedding ring. Also her letters. And lots and lots of copies of Alice in Wonderland, in all different languages.
When I first started to think about what to write (a long time ago!) I wanted something that meant something to me personally. They always say: write about something you know – and I knew about Alice Liddell. Although I knew very little about the Victorians!
Tait chose to write from Mary Prickett’s perspective because a governess is part of the adults’ and the childrens’ worlds and at the same time, part of neither.
I wanted to make her a difficult woman: prickly on the outside but inside full of longing and desire. Mary Prickett was the real-life governess of Alice and her sisters. Carroll said the Red Queen was the “concentrated essence of all governesses” and Mary was the governess he knew best. So it’s safe to say Mary is the inspiration for the Red Queen. There’s some other bits of information about her: Ina, Alice’s obedient older sister was her favourite. She was not highly educated. And it was rumoured in Oxford that Mr Dodgson was paying court to her as he came to the Deanery so often.
When I started this book I had too many stories to tell, too many points of view. It was when my agent suggested I tell it from the governess’ POV that the book started to come together.
At the time of interview, Tait was currently reading The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst.
It’s a non-fiction exploration of Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson and the cultural implications of Alice in Wonderland. Also A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg (out in the summer) which is a beautifully written novel about Queen Anne from child princess in the glittering Restoration court to Queen of England.
The Looking Glass House will be published in July, and will be available on Lovereading.co.uk, the UK’s No1 book recommendation site.