When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, she found Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But how did Victorian Oxford react to Alice’s disappearance?
Gregory Maguire turns his imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings – and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll’s enduring tale. Ada, a friend mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, sets out to visit Alice but arrives a moment too late. Tumbling down the rabbit hole herself, she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and bring her safely home from this surreal world below the world.
After Alice, by Gregory Maguire, is one of the best retellings I have ever read. Rather than modernize the story and strip it of some of its more bizarre elements as so many authors do, Maguire has crafted a novel that is intricately woven with its source material. He echoes Carroll’s frenetic writing style, creating something that feels authentically 19th century but also somehow anachronistic – as I suppose a 19th century novel written by a 21st century author couldn’t help but be. In Maguire’s take, Wonderland becomes self-aware.
What I liked most about the book – and I liked it even more for it not being included in the blurb – was the early revelation that Ada has some kind of physical disability. In typical 19th century style, she is described in pretty monstrous terms by the governess who despises her.
‘Ada Boyce, a child parcelled out by a lapse in heaven’s supervision, as far as Miss Armstrong was concerned. The guarded eye in that child. That torso. When other girls of Ada’s age were gleeful English roses on swaying stems, Ada was a glum, spastic heifer. Sooner or later she’d require a wheeled chair.’
While most people – with the exception of Alice – react to Ada with disgust and fear, in general, those she meets in Wonderland are indifferent to her disability. In fact, Maguire immediately sets up Wonderland as a place where Ada can exist without shame. In an attempt to ‘cure’ her, Ada’s parents make her wear an iron corset, a ‘penitential vest intended to tame the crookedness in her spine.’ As she tumbles down the hole that leads to Wonderland, the corset springs open and falls away. Not exactly subtle, but you get Maguire’s point. You can be yourself in Wonderland.
Maguire takes this a step further when Siam, another character, finds himself in Wonderland. Siam spent much of his childhood as a slave, and even after abolition lived in constant fear of recapture until his guardian, Mr Winter, brought him to England – where people consider slavery wrong but are still totally racist – to keep him ‘safe’. Siam has lost his entire family, and with them, his hope for the future. It probably goes without saying that 19th century England isn’t doing much to restore that hope. He chooses to remain in Wonderland, forever.
After Alice is a book preoccupied with childhood. All of its young protagonists find the adult world intruding on their lives. Siam was enslaved, his childhood stolen from him. Alice and her sister, Lydia’s ended on the day their mother died, and their father vanished into his grief. Ada is denied it by a society that rejects her before she even has the chance to participate in it.
Lydia – as much a villain of the piece as Ada’s governess, Miss Armstrong – is an interesting example of this. She is one of the most complex characters in the book. She’s an unreliable narrator and she veers as dizzyingly between adult and childhood as she does monstrous and sympathetic. At fifteen, she wants all the freedoms of an adult and the privileges of a child. She resents having to watch Alice (which leads her to be inattentive which leads Alice to fall into Wonderland) now that her mother is gone almost as much as she resents Alice herself for being the younger child. For being the one who can experience grief without responsibility.
After Alice is a beautifully written, richly layered book. It is absolutely perfect for anybody looking to take another trip to Wonderland.
‘The Jabberwock flexed its wings and circled above the crowd in the courtroom, snatching a sleeping dormouse into its open maw, but the dormouse simply dropped through and landed into a barrister’s starched wig, snoring all the while. Ada thought, Is that all that happens by walking into the mouth of doom?’