My Heroine, Mary Prickett

In my book The Looking Glass House, I have taken the real governess that the Liddells  employed. Mary Prickett looked like this:

But as well as her photograph, there were other facts that I found out about her in the course of my research.

She was very likely the inspiration for the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass. Lewis Carroll said the Red Queen was, “the concentrated essence of all governesses.” He also said she is “the thorny kind,” an allusion to the Liddell’s girls’ nickname for Prickett, “Pricks.” The name is a gift for a novelist!

Alice recalled later that her governess was “not the highly educated governess of today.” Mary Prickett was employed to ferry the girls about and to teach them basic reading and writing. For art lessons the girls had John Ruskin; they also had tutors for French and music and other accomplishments. Academic achievements were a low priority for girls and Mary’s task was not onerous.

In adulthood Alice¬† wrote to her sister Ina that she had not been Mary’s favourite. The governess had preferred Ina, the “good” girl. It was easy for me to go on to create Alice as the kind of girl you wouldn’t want at your kid’s birthday party – charming to some, unbearable to others (especially governesses).

And most importantly, there was a rumour in Oxford that Lewis Carroll came so often to the Liddells’ house because he was paying court to the governess – and that formed the main plot of my book.

Governesses are good narrators because they float between adult and children’s worlds, seeing everything and belonging nowhere. Mary is lonely and desperate to have a life of her own, and when she meets Lewis Carroll she thinks he will be the person to give her that life.

She’s wrong of course – but I’m not going to give the plot away!