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Ghosts of the Past. 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.
Still she Haunts me
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? 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. 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:.
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Alice felt his legs underneath her, more fragile and birdlike than her father's. She played with his collar as he spoke.
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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.
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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.
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