'I was initially wary about writing another novel set in the 19th century, and featuring yet another famous writer," Gaynor Arnold admits in the afterword to After Such Kindness. Luckily, the tantalising draw of the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell, also known as Lewis Carroll and his Alice in Wonderland muse, proved too strong for Arnold to resist. As finely wrought as her 2008 debut, Girl in a Blue Dress – a literary gem which revisited Charles Dickens's life from the perspective of his estranged wife, Catherine – After Such Kindness finds its nuanced balance via five very different narrators: John Jameson (a stand-in for Charles Dodgson); Daisy (Alice Liddell's stand-in); Margaret Constantine (the grown-up Daisy); Daniel Baxter (Daisy's father); and Evelina Baxter (Daisy's mother).
The book opens in 1862, with an introduction to Jameson: a 35-year-old, six-foot-tall Oxford academic, mathematician and clergyman who is sensitively attuned to the craft of photography, "an art on a par with drawing or sculpture and needs just the same amount of concentration and finesse". He is a social recluse, but known for his published satires. ("The more firmly an opinion is held," he tells the Dean of his college, "the more I am inclined to make fun of it.")
Forced into a corner at work, Jameson reluctantly makes the acquaintance of his colleague Daniel Baxter. In doing so, he meets Baxter's family, which includes Daisy, a "quick and curious", highly precocious and perceptive 11-year-old with a mind of her own. Daisy longs for an element of control over her life, as becomes clear when her beloved nanny is unceremoniously given the boot: "The more I tried to make sense of it all, the more nonsensical it seemed. The rules of life seemed arbitrary and cruel … I could not help feeling that it was a topsy-turvy arrangement, and that if I had charge of the world, I would make sure children would be listened to, and people like Nettie treated as they deserved. But of course I did not have charge of the world. I hardly had charge of myself."
Jameson's wit, gifts and generous attentions gain Daisy's notice – she had been a bit lost amid the family, between her older sisters and her parents' only son – and he, smitten, is eager to befriend her. He entices her with on-the-spot stories and enjoyable conversations about nature, enigmas and whether God has hobbies. Soon, the two are fast friends; Jameson is included on family picnics and Daisy partakes of tea parties at his college rooms, revelling in the attention: "It was the first time any adult had noticed me in that particular kind of way – listening to my questions and giving me proper answers."
Cut to 10 years later, when the newly-married Margaret Constantine, in an effort to clear out her old family home, is digging around in the old trunk in her nursery. From under a pile of puzzles, games and well-thumbed copies of Robinson Crusoe, The Water Babies, Oliver Twist and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, she unearths her childhood diary and revisits a time that was at first exciting and enlightening, then chaotic and terrifying; a time which left her, as we soon learn, with a four-year-long memory gap.
Arnold laces her tale with a lively infusion of all things Lewis Carroll. Familiar images – a looking-glass; nursemaids and piglet-babies; puddles made of tears; cupboards and keyholes; Cheshire cats, walruses, dormice, oysters and caterpillars – pop up with a knowing wink and a nod. Merging 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with a distinctly measured approach, Arnold also draws on her experience as a contemporary childcare social worker, weaving a tapestry rich with imagination, madness and sadness. (At a particularly painful point in Daisy's story, it comes with relief when a stalwart character, gentle with kindness, attempts to take charge: "Tell me again … but calmly this time, Daisy. So I can understand.")
Arnold's precise depiction of Victorian manners and mannerisms shines, as does her ability to give young Daisy an arresting narrative voice. The context of the young girl's limited world comes through – and so does her impatient chafing against those limitations. In the telling scene in which Daisy watches her beloved nanny Nettie packing to leave, the child is trying desperately to gain a few answers and insights, while Nettie is attempting to maintain a sense of decorum without losing control of her own roiling emotions. Nettie packs her case, as Daisy perceives it, "with a good deal of steady attention, as if she was doing arithmetic in her head".
There's little doubt of Arnold's other literary inspiration – the first pages reflect several shades of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita – but Arnold has more than one trick up her sleeve in her approach to this story, which is by turns amusing, engaging and disconcerting.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies