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Dark Secrets Underground
Katie Roiphe's Still She Haunts Me

by Doug Childers

In her first novel, Katie Roiphe explores the tantalizingly complex relationship between Alice Liddell and the shy mathematics lecturer who became world-famous under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

The general outline and characters of Katie Roiphe's first novel, Still She Haunts Me, should be familiar to most avid readers. On a spring day in 1856, the young mathematics lecturer, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known under his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll), attends a party thrown by the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and finds himself infatuated with the Dean's four-year-old daughter, Alice Liddell. Over the course of seven years, Dodgson's infatuation grows, and at Alice's insistence, he writes down one of the many fantastical stories he tells her. In 1865, it's published as Alice's Adventures Under Ground, though its title eventually becomes Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In addition to making up nonsensical verse and prose for Alice, Dodgson indulges his fascination with photography and soon fills the Liddell's house with photographs of her. Dean Liddell, an obsessed reformer, finds Dodgson peculiar but not interesting or threatening enough to wonder, at length, why exactly Dodgson likes his daughter so much. But Alice's mother worries about his intentions, although she never manages to share them with her overworked husband. Then, when Alice is eleven, her association with Dodgson is suddenly ended. No one knows why, precisely, though Roiphe advances a fictional explanation in her novel. Was Dodgson, in fact, a pederast whose intended victim's parents found him out?

Still She Haunts Me
Katie Roiphe
The Dial Press
229 pp.
$23.95 order now logo


It's whoppingly good material from which to build a novel, and Roiphe (who is best known for her provocative nonfiction) does beautiful work here, with a prose style whose sensual slowness drips with a sense of the forbidden. Here, for instance, is a splendid passage in which Dodgson finds himself flummoxed by a newspaper article about young girls being sold to 'depraved gentlemen':


He couldn't stop the pictures of a shabby girlchild in an overbright room. He thought of sweet chloroform filling her lungs and washing through her head an artificial peace. He saw her go limp, as an unnamed gentleman watched. And then he saw a row of doors along the hallway with other girls inside the rooms in various states of drugged acquiescence. He saw it as clearly as if the article had been accompanied by photographs. A line from his own story ran inexplicably through his head: All little girls are serpents.


The creepiness factor in that decidedly explicit passage is a bit deceptive when it's taken out of context, actually, since Roiphe manages to make virtually everything in the novel feel like the work of a gauze-and-yellow-filter-addled cinemaphotographer intimately familiar with the work of David Lynch (or Adrian Lyne, for that matter). Witness, for example, what she makes of a simple walk to Dodgson's rooms:


As Dodgson walked diagonally toward his rooms, his notes tucked under his arm, he saw a hole that had been dug for a pipe. Improvements were being made. He stood at the edge of the hole, which was approximately the size of a dinner plate, and peered down the sides, the ripped surface glossy, almost black, bits of root sticking through, the dirt rough, shiny specks of mineral glittering in the sun. If he had not been looking he could have fallen in, he thought to himself, annoyed.

He looked down into the hole, the dark brown shading into black. He couldn't isolate the precise moment where it was too dark to see, only witnessed the tunneling, experienced the end of sight, the anxious straining of the eye. There was no bottom, only a looming blackness, and suddenly he felt his stomach lurching. The dark hole in the earth seemed to threaten, to gape and to yearn, but for what? The ten feet of pipe that was going to fill it? Metal. Progress. He was perfectly capable of stepping around it and walking confidently on to his rooms, but he didn't. He stood at its mouth, stuck and falling at the same time.


Wonderful writing, that.

As well-written as it is, though, one wonders, perhaps inevitably, whether this sort of book would be as appealing without such famous figures as its subjects. Would Roiphe's Dodgson rise to Humbert Humbert's level if his real-life inspiration hadn't written the Alice books? Would her Alice match Lolita? The questions are unfair, I suspect. (How, after all, do we separate the historical Dodgson from the novel's Dodgson?) Still, one can't help thinking that Still She Haunts Me might seem a bit slow-developing and even solemn, without its historical resonance. But Roiphe's characters--with or without their historical referents--are so well-drawn and so complex (and yes: lifelike) that the book would work as a novel simply because of them even if the writing weren't so lyrically powerful, I think.

Perhaps surprisingly, Roiphe's Dodgson may not be the book's most successful character--but that's a relative comparison. He's certainly a compelling enigma. Indeed, his most intriguing quality may be his tantalizing blend of enigmatic allure and potential danger. The son of an overbearing parish priest whose many children, Roiphe writes, were "visible signs of sin, fleshly manifestations of unspeakable acts," he finds himself repelled by adult women and rendered virtually speechless by his shy demeanor and his stubborn stuttering. Whether he understands fully his own secrets she leaves unanswered, and this certainly helps her as a novelist writing about a relatively distant figure. Unfortunately for readers who like closure, it leaves the central question--was Dodgson a pederast?--without a definitive answer. (She has implied outside the novel that it's simply not an answerable question, since it's set solidly in a contemporary rather than Victorian context.) But the way she has other characters--particularly Alice's mother--fret and wonder about his intentions creates a wonderful atmosphere of nervous suspense. Indeed, as strong as Roiphe's Dodgson is, her work with Alice's mother is even stronger, particularly when it comes to feelings of empathy and understanding.

But the strongest character in the book is, fittingly, Alice herself: the object of Dodgson's desires (whatever their form) and, by extension, ours. And again, Roiphe's work with Alice is distinguished by the complexity of her character development. Alice is no mere victim of Dodgson's illicit desires; she is, even when she first appears in the novel as a four year old, fully cognizant of both the way people see her and the way she can manipulate her own image for their benefit (or shock). Feeling the men watch her in that first scene, Roiphe writes that Alice "stuck out her stomach" and "turned to stare in a way he [Dodgson] had never seen a child stare."

Far from offering a simple victim / violator relationship, Roiphe draws out a decidedly more complicated one in which the expected roles are reversed: Dodgson silent and flummoxed, Alice cool and teasingly manipulative. Even when they are alone and Dodgson is most comfortable, the power structures in the relationship are pointedly even, if not actually tipped Alice's way. Here, for example, is a superb scene in which Alice sits in Dodgson's lap and listens to a story he's making up for her benefit:


Alice felt his legs underneath her, more fragile and birdlike than her father's. She played with his collar as he spoke. She knew he was telling the story just for her, that he was making each moment up to please her. Oysters wearing shoes. Her mother served oysters at a party. He anticipated her desires even before she knew what they were, and she felt her presence in the story itself, her imprint on its invisible, muscular form. I weep for you, the walrus said: I deeply sympathize. With sobs and tears he sorted out those of the largest size. What does Alice want? She could feel Dodgson thinking as he spoke, underneath, and that question, that anticipation was it: her participation. The ideas thrown up from the depths just for her. This was something she understood right from the beginning, the collaboration of the story. These stories were not just for her, they were from her.


Still She Haunts Me isn't a mere re-imagining of a collection of historical figures and events. Nor is it a fanciful novel wholly divorced from its historical setting. Roiphe has written something that honors both history and the novel, and its sustained tonal complexity is impressive, to say the least. Click here to find any book!


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