Gaynor Arnold’s second novel, After Such Kindness, is inspired by the ‘tender and troubling’ friendship between Lewis Carroll and his muse, the young Alice Liddell. Revisiting the Victorian era of her first novel, Girl in a Blue Dress (a fictionalised account of the marriage of Charles Dickens), Arnold deftly draws a world in which everyone is concerned with being seen as respectable, meaning although emotions are often high they are often unexpressed.
John Jameson is an Oxford don and a clergyman. He has recently discovered a love of photography when he befriends a local priest, Daniel Baxter—and then Baxter’s ten-year-old daughter, Daisy. Jameson is instantly enchanted by Daisy’s beauty and sweet, innocent nature, and his visits to the Baxter house become more frequent as his interest in the family extends beyond theological and philosophical debates with Daniel. He accompanies the family on Daisy’s birthday picnic, and they soon begin taking outings together and having tea together in his rooms. After taking a portrait of Daisy and her little friends at the picnic, Jameson invites the girls to be photographed at his rooms dressed as fairies. They accept and thoroughly enjoy all the dressing up and posing, but soon it is only Daisy he wishes to photograph, and only Daisy he wishes to see.
Rumours about the nature of the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell have survived to this day. His love of photographing her –and other children – and his intense interest in her has made many suspect that he was interested in her sexually. The general conclusion is that Carroll did not have a ‘normal’ sexuality and probably was at least ‘curious’ about Alice – but that he never acted on these feelings and their friendship remained innocent. These suspicions of corruption and impure motivations are present in Arnold’s story of Jameson and Daisy. They both narrate the story, as do Daisy’s parents. Daisy, however, only narrates from her adulthood. Newly married, she finds her childhood diary. She wonders if its contents will help her remember the four years of her adolescence she does not remember – the four years after she met John Jameson.
Daisy finds the touch of her kind and loving husband unbearable (she hid under the bed on their wedding night), and the reader of course thinks the worst about her relationship with Jameson. As she reads her diary and the story progresses, Daisy slowly begins to understand a little more about herself. She is tormented by half-formed memories and desperate to be a good wife and appear ‘normal’ to the rest of the world. There is also much examination of family, and what it means to love someone as a parent, child, or friend. Relationships are pushed to their limits and feelings are questioned as the characters try to understand each other as the book moves toward an ending that is clever and unexpected. This is a truly fascinating and remarkable book that goes beyond the story of Carroll and Alice into a whole new ‘wonderland’ of memories, fear, doubt, and love.
Gaynor Arnold writes here about her relationship with Alice in Wonderland, explaining why a work of wit and whimsy has always inspired in her such a sense of discomfort.