Friday 26 June 2015


Book review: The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

My edition: Paperback (proof), to be published on 2 July 2015 by Corvus, 298 pages.

Description: 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-turvy in pursuit of her obsession.


The Looking Glass House is one of those novels that seem to be one thing, yet turns out to be something completely different. Sometimes this leads to a delightful surprise, other times these wrong expectations result in disappointment – as was unfortunately the case in this instance.

Written by the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the girl who was the inspiration behind the classic character of Alice from the Wonderland novels, The Looking Glass House is a fictionalised retelling of Alice's true childhood. The lives of the Liddell sisters is seen through the eyes of their governess, Mary Prickett, who becomes fascinated by a family friend, Charles Dodgson, who in turn seems incredibly fond of the three young sisters, Alice in particular. He always takes the girls' photographs and asks them away on trips and one day Mary hears him tell an absurd yet enchanting story about Alice in a magical land.

Dodgson is nowadays of course better know as Lewis Carroll, the author of the aformentioned Alice in Wonderland, and from the moment that this became clear within the novel I felt incredibly intrigued by the hints to the wondrous tale that were sprinkled throughout and served as the seeds for Dodgson's classic novels. It wasn't only the three sisters I recognised from within the pages of the children's classics, but family acquaintances too and even the governess central within The Looking Glass House made an appearance. It was a marvelous treasure hunt through Victorian England and Dodgon's imagination – and one that with my love for the original Wonderland tales and whimsical characters I wish could've been the sole focus of the novel.

Unfortunately this wasn't the case. As the story progressed it took a more bizarre turn, one that seemed to come completely out of the blue considering the novel's cover and blurb, and it really wasn't something I felt interested in reading. It didn't help that Mary slowly but gradually turned into the unlikeable creature befitting the nickname so cruelly given to her by Dodgson and Alice, as it was difficult to continue to care for a character and story that made me feel so deeply uncomfortable and shattered my childhood illusions about a magical land and charming cast of characters to match.

Admittedly, I'm generally not a big fan of historical fiction nor reading about Victorian times, so perhaps it's partly my own fault for being led by an intriguing synopsis and magical cover, but The Looking Glass House just wasn't what I expected and hoped it to be. Instead of letting me return to the wondrous tales I grew up with, it has now forever changed my perspective in an unfavourable way – and that's a shame.

You can purchase the novel from Waterstones, or your own preferred retailer.

Would you like to know more about the author? You can connect with her online at:

Twitter: @vanessa_tait

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of the novel through Lovereading in exchange for an honest review.

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