Thursday, January 21, 2010


"She liked his stories where things came zigzagging out of nowhere, each minute unconnected to the next. True, she was not sure if he was quite like other people. If he were her own age, stuttering like that, she would certainly not like him."  Still She Haunts Me by Katie Roiphe

I recently finished one of most beautifully written books I've read in quite some time. Still She Haunts Me is a fictional novel about the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, the girl for whom he made up the Alice stories. As any reader of this blog is fully aware, this is a subject of a fascination for me and is what led me to pick up the book in the first place. Though, that was the original reason I read the book, I discovered something much richer than a curious interpretation of one author's imagining of this famous historical relationship. 

The novel's real strength is the exploration of the incredibly complicated relationship between artist and muse. The historical documentation of this particular creation story make for a perfect setting to examine the the confusing line between creative passion and desire. Was Lewis Carroll in love with Alice? The answer, based on his own letters and even a small dose of common sense would suggest that he certainly was in love with her. But the nature of this love has been debated, questioned, and analyzed for over a century and a half. Was it an innocent infatuation or something more? It seems most scholars always fall to one side of the divide or the other. Still She Haunts Me suggests, as I've always believed as well, that the real answer falls somewhere in-between or that it was transient, moving back and forth between the two.

"Dodgson shaded his eyes so he could see better. The girls were running across the lawn, batting the ball, their skirts flying behind them.

His eye was drawn to the middle one. Alice. The least pretty. Not an inanimate doll-beauty like the others, but a dark, wild, tousled thing. Her legs and arms too long, sun-browned, her hair short for a girl, almost boyish, and messy, sticking up, as if she had just woken up, the front cut unevenly; no doubt she squirmed under the scissors. Her face was pointed. Her eyes enormous and complicated and black.

 And then there was the slightest trace of theater in her stance. She ran a little too fast. She concentrated a little too intently on the ball. She swung a little too hard when she hit it. All of which served to make her more there than her sisters."  page 11

I've often wondered what it is about some people, or places that stand out in an artistic sense and inspire a creative urge. A lot of my characters are based initially on stranger's faces that for one reason or another haunted me. Gretchen from Tomorrow, Maybe was based on a girl I saw on the subway. Elizabeth from that book and Thief is based on someone I barely knew but for one reason or another occupied my imagination. Same can be for Lukas from Zombie Blondes. In the case of Alice, this obsession by the artist was a hundred fold, but on a basic level, I can understand how inspiration can easily become twisted into obsession...especially to a Victorian era recluse with a stutter who lived hailed the imagination as a divine power. This novel illustrates all of those complex feelings so exquisitely and tastefully. 

I did object to some of the liberties taken by the author when it came to the end and the fallout between Carroll and the Liddell family (which remains one of the great unsolved literary mysteries). Though her suggestion is very plausible, and therefore works in a literary sense and doesn't detract from the greatness of the book, it casts a negative light over the factual circumstances that I feel might be a little unfair. Regardless, it's a fantastic book illustrating a most unconventional love story and I recommend it for anyone interested in the Alice universe or the creative process. 

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