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Beauty and the Bachelor

STILL SHE HAUNTS ME, A Novel, by Katie Roiphe, The Dial Press: 228 pp. $23.95

November 11, 2001|D.J. CARLILE | D.J. Carlile is a music critic, playwright, poet and translator of "Rimbaud: The Works," available at

Why do the "Alice" books of Lewis Carroll hold such fascination for readers? One could offer that "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass" are brilliant fantasies with a rich vein of dreamlike absurdity. But there are deeper currents flowing through these books, books that liberated children's literature from the sentimental trappings of the Victorian era, and Katie Roiphe's first novel, an auspicious debut, provides an intriguing look at the questions behind the story of the "Alice" books.

"Still She Haunts Me" is a tale of love that often chills and has little or no flame: It glows with the sepia light of old photographs, the wet sheen of English gardens in the rain, the wan sun of an Oxford summer. It is a love story in gothic blues, of bleak and just-bearable anguish.

Charles Dodgson was a mathematician at Oxford in the middle of the 19th century, an amateur photographer of some repute. (He did portraits of Tennyson and his family, the Rossettis and other eminent Victorians.) He was a shy, reclusive personality with little or no "social grace" to speak of, except in the company of children: Specifically the Liddell children, Lorina, Alice and Edith--the three daughters of the dean of his college--for whom he spun extravagant stories and whom he frequently photographed. Alice was his favorite of the three. She was the gypsy, the disheveled and precocious one; and she, transformed, is the heroine of his famous books, composed when she was 9 or 10.

In Alice's 11th year the family suddenly shut Dodgson out, Mrs. Liddell sending him a curt note stating: "It is no longer desirable for you to spend time with our family." What caused this rift has never been explained or discovered. Roiphe's novel goes a long way toward explicating what is essentially a mystery. Was there something deemed improper in the photographs, as Roiphe surmises? "The exact truth cannot be pinned down because the truth is not there," she writes near the end of the book, "The truth is somewhere in between. The truth is whatever you want it to be.... "

It was in photography--seemingly his only hobby--that Dodgson attempted to "make sense" of his world, and in Roiphe's telling it is the supremacy of the captured moments that haunts him. While Dodgson is photographing Christina Rossetti and meditating on her "Goblin Market," he thinks: "How strange that she would put a dream--it must have been a dream--right out there, pinned open, for everyone to see." When it comes time to publish his own "dream," feeling it too frivolous a work for a mathematician, he retires behind a pseudonym culled from his first and middle names. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson becomes Lewis Carroll (Lewis from the German "Ludwig" for Louis, and Carroll from the Latin "Carolus" for Charles).

The crux of "Still She Haunts Me" appears at the precise middle of this haunted wonderland of a story: "Dodgson and Alice are standing near the wall of the old library, the sky spread out around them, as if they were about to take flight. Alice's hair is falling on her neck, and it is too disorderly for a photograph. What if we just swept it up? Dodgson says, but his hands are trembling and his breath is coming too slowly. His hands are in her hair, but she is almost 11 and he is 31 and even though the stories he tells can dip them in water and send them down rabbit holes and turn them upside down, nothing on earth will ever change that.... How strange and miraculous and unnerving it is to stumble accidentally on your capacity to open yourself so completely to someone else. To know that you will always feel this way and that time can have no possible effect...."

These few paragraphs at the heart of the novel, at its physical epicenter, distill the mood and meaning of the book. And 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.

Roiphe writes: "Amazing the things Dodgson would sit through and endure.... It did not occur to him that Alice was badly behaved or that he should not have to cater to her so abjectly.... The strange logic of Wonderland forces Alice to cajole, appease and flatter a whole series of fantastical beings who are always in a bad mood and always chastising her. Dodgson's creations were so irritable because of how un-irritable Dodgson had to be in life. He had invented a world in which every single animal is prickly and sensitive and cranky, all of his annoyance pent up and expressed in animal form."

"Still She Haunts Me," with its psychological depth and scenes of "Wonderland" hallucination, its delving into the psyche of man and child, holds the reader under a magic spell. This is a strictly adult entertainment, a finely wrought fantasia that has the ring of truth about it. We are presented with a different and disturbing "pair of star-cross'd lovers." They are inextricably intertwined and forever apart. As Roiphe puts it: "They are like Zeno's famous paradox: if you divide the space between you and an object in half, and go to that point, and divide the existing space in half and go to that point, you will never actually reach the object. And that is how it is with them. Even when Dodgson and Alice are standing inches apart, the space hangs between them filled with the scent of her hair."

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