One of the books scheduled as a group read next month is Gaynor Arnold’s fictionalised depiction of the life led by Catherine Dickens after her husband fell in love with the young actress Nellie Ternan. I read The Girl in the Blue Dress when it first came out and so, knowing a little of the way Arnold worked in that novel, I decided that I would read her more recent book, After Such Kindness, in order to be able to make comparisons between the two.
Like the earlier book this novel is loosely based on the relationship between a Victorian writer and a young woman; in this case a very much younger woman because the writer fictionalised as John Jameson is clearly Charles Dodgson, better known to most as Lewis Carroll. However, Daisy Baxter, the fictionalised Alice Liddell, has little in common with her model other than being the daughter of an Oxford clergyman and this should be an early indication that while Arnold wants her reader to draw the obvious parallels she also has a deeper purpose: one which is instigated by common perceptions of Dodgson’s preference for the company of young girls, but which eventually throws an almost kindly light on what is often represented as a nascent pedophilia.
For the most part the novel is related by four first person narrators, Jameson, Daisy and both her parents. The adults speak from the time when Daisy was eleven years old, whereas Daisy, now known as Margaret, is looking back on that period from eight years later, when, just married, she has found and re-read the journal she kept during that fateful summer.
It is in the narratives of Jameson and Daisy that the links with the world of Alice are most apparent. Anyone who knows their Carroll well will pick up a myriad references. Margaret tells us that
I often found myself squashed up between a mad vicar from fairyland and an equally certifiable archdeacon from Nurseryland, who both seemed set fair to put my head into the teapot if I did not agree with them
and there is a wonderful conversation on the subject of killing time.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the conversation between Daniel Baxter, Daisy’s father, and Jameson.
He [Jameson] smiled. “The reader may have a partial – or incorrect – understanding of the words, but that is not the Bible’s fault, it is certainly not God’s.”
I was exasperated. “You might as well contended that the Bible means what it says because it – well – says what it means.”
“For some people it is the same.”
The difficulty of interpretation, the uniqueness of interpretation to the individual, be that of words or of actions, is central to the book.
Because, Arnold is not simply concerned to retell the story of the relationship between Dodgson and Alice. She is much more concerned with using the question of whether or not, in taking photographs of Daisy naked, Jameson has been manipulating her for his own ends, in order to look at all the other men who see Daisy as simply a puppet put on this earth that they might further their own desires through her regardless of the damage that she thereby suffers. This is true of her father, of her husband and eventually even of the eminent doctor who is supposed to be helping her. ‘Therefore,’ he writes
Mrs C. is very special to me, and I intend to make the best use of her that I can.
But, he has already made up his mind that what we know to be at the root of Daisy’s distress is impossible because no man would be capable of such horror. Whatever happens in his consulting rooms will be for his greater glory and in no way of any assistance to Daisy.
And yet each of these men insist that they are seeing things from a right, even from a righteous, point of view. They interpret their actions in such a manner as to validate the damage that they do to Daisy because it satisfies their needs. The male of the species comes out very badly from this book.
So, in the end I found myself turning in my judgment and thinking that of all the men in her life Jameson had done the least harm to Daisy and had at least given her real joy along the way. This is a thoughtful and interesting book and one I would recommend to any reader whether interested in Alice or not.