I adore Alice in Wonderland. Absolutely fully and completely adore it. It is the most wonderful and imaginative of texts, filled with so much content that you can read it again and again and still never fully reach its depths. From movies, to TV series to books and spin offs, Alice in Wonderland is a never ending joy.
I also quite like Gregory Maguire. His Wicked series is a political rendering of a kids’ story like none I’ve ever read before. I enjoyed that quartet thoroughly and completely, awakening in me a new passion for the Wizard of Oz that I had not felt before.
So, Alice in Wonderland + Gregory Maguire = a seemingly great mix.
And it was good. But it wasn’t great. Not until the end. It seemed like a task to get into the story, which focusses on Lydia, Alice’s sister, Ada, Alice’s friend mentioned briefly in the originals, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s ‘nanny’. Ada arrives just in time to fall down the rabbit hole after Alice. Miss Armstrong and Lydia search for their respective charges, often together, and in the process also manage to lose Siam, a young boy of colour supposedly rescued by Mr Winter, and assistant to Darwin. And there we have the setup of a very clearly structured but rather disappointing tale.
Ada is an interesting character, physically disabled and recently replaced by a younger, sickly brother, as the favoured child of her household. Her father’s role as vicar features heavily in Ada’s understanding of Wonderland and her reactions to others, although the bible is only really overtly mentioned once or twice. There is a consistent suggestion of impropriety between Ada’s father and Miss Armstrong, undermining the strength of the religion, alongside Darwin’s science and the death of Alice’s mother. All in all, there is a rather atheistic feel to the novel, which lends itself to a sense of hopelessness. Ada, however, emerges as the hero who rescues Alice from death. The Jabberwok, the most feared creature in all of Wonderland, is Ada’s metal corset, used to straighten her spine from its deformity. She shed it in the fall to Wonderland (which she debates regularly, may well be hell as it is so far below the surface) and it returns with a mind of its own in the feared form of a Jabberwok. Whilst Ada is initially portrayed as an unimaginative, clingy and needy child, her responses to Wonderland show the depth of her acceptance of what is put before her, and she shows no surprise at the return of her corset but rather defeats the Jabberwok by putting it back on. She is the faithful sidekick, the real hero of the piece, one who understands Wonderland better than Alice herself, as Ada does not expect anything to make sense.
Uncovering Lydia’s character was an almost impossible task – a young girl caught between childhood and womanhood, who has lost her mother, has an emotionally absent father and a wandering sister. You feel great sympathy for Lydia as she seeks the affections of Mr Winter, but also that maternal frustration at her that she doesn’t understand the way the world works. You pity and admire Lydia, for her loss and what she has gained through it. Whilst her selfishness could be interpreted as deplorable, I believe it is rather an accurate representation of the female teenage struggle to find your place in the world. Miss Armstrong declares that Lydia ‘you are cruel, then you are kind and then you are cruel beyond compare. I do not understand you, but there is no time to try’. (p191). In that single sentence, Lydia’s struggles and the struggles of all teenagers are summed up; they do not know their own identity, they flit between cruelness and kindness to see which one works, and no one seems able or willing to take the time to work through this with them. Perhaps if Lydia’s mother was alive, her struggle would not be so intense.
The imagery of the Jabberwok as Ada’s corset is what saves this tale from total disaster. Similarly to Ursula LeQuinn’s Earthsea series, the fearsome thing that Ada runs from is actually a well known and recognised part of herself. It is not the unknown that we fear, but the seemingly inevitable future we see for ourselves.
Maguire sticks quite truly to Carroll’s original Wonderland, reusing the same characters and language (the caterpillar starts with ‘whooooo are you?). Carroll had already created a dark and deeply political underworld, so unlike the Wizard of Oz, there was not much more confusion or intrigue to be made. What Maguire does exceptionally well is to make sure that nothing makes sense. Perhaps that is why I don’t feel like I read a great book, just a good one. Because there seems no purpose, no goal in it. But isn’t that the point of Wonderland? There is no end goal, only Wonderland itself.
I am glad I discovered and read After Alice. It has engaged my brain again with the concept that the worlds we think we know and love are far from as simple as we imagine. I liked Ada, she was kind and sensible in a senseless and horrid world and she is a realistic heroine that perhaps those who are not standard ‘beauty’ of Alice can aspire to.