Sunday, October 6, 2013

Speaking Likenesses

Alice fans might be interested in checking out Christina Rossetti’s longest work for children, Speaking Likenesses, which was published in 1874, three years after Through the Looking-Glass. It’s no secret that Charles Dodgson was friends with the Rossetti family (he even photographed them), and the influence of Alice on Speaking Likenesses is clear. Rossetti herself even acknowledged the Alice books as an inspiration in a letter to her brother Dante Gabriel, though she admitted to it being ‘merely a Christmas trifle’ in comparison. It’s essentially three short stories about three little girls — Flora, Edith and Maggie — who each have their own odd adventures; the tales are narrated by an aunt to her young nieces, and the childrens’ queries and comments continually intersperse the text in parentheses. In the first story, the most overtly Alice-esque, Flora falls asleep during her birthday party and passes through a door in a tree into a mirror-lined room filled with living furniture and a number of deformed children. Ruling over all is the ‘Birthday Queen’, an aggressive little girl who appears to be Flora’s sinister twin. The other two stories feature talking animals and, disturbingly, a boy whose face is one giant mouth. The title Speaking Likenesses means that the three girls each encounter, in Rossetti’s own words, ‘embodiments or caricatures of themselves or their faults’. Here, then, Rossetti is more moralising than Dodgson, and Flora, Edith and Maggie all finish their adventures having learnt some important life lesson or other. I actually found Speaking Likenesses a rather disquieting read: whilst the Alice books have their death jokes and bizarre transformations, their child protagonist certainly isn’t subjected to an unsettling game called ‘Hunt the Pincushion’ in which she is chased and pricked with pins and other sharp objects. The illustrations of Speaking Likenesses are by Arthur Hughes, a Pre-Raphaelite artist and also a close friend of Dodgson’s, and the drawings clearly show the inspiration of John Tenniel in Hughes’s depiction of the three girls. So, yes, after all this rambling, it’s an interesting little curiosity if you’ve got nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon; it can be read entirely for free online on the Internet Archive. An essay on Speaking Likenesses and its contexts by Julia Briggs can be found in The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts.

from the very good

1 comment:

Kimberly Eve said...

I remember recently being surprised to see this gorgeous book sitting under glass as part of an exhibit at The New York Public Library. How I wish I could've picked it up and flipped through those pages! Thanks for the wonderful link and post, Hermes :)