Gregory Maguire After Alice
Headline 2016 (2015)
The title is the absolute epitome of what this novel is: a kaleidoscope of conflicting contradictions. Is it a literal description of us readers following Alice and the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole? Is After Alice instead an acknowledgement that we can’t ever return to the state of innocence that was children’s literature before the world experienced Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Or rather is it a modern retelling based on Alice, a meditation on the themes the classic suggests but rewritten for a 21st-century readership? Perhaps it is all of these things, or even none of them.
In fact, is it about Alice at all? Was the Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland the historical Alice Liddell or merely a literary persona, and are any of these the same as the Alice of Maguire’s novel, whom we discover is actually one Alice Clowd? As Carroll’s Alice remarked, curiouser and curiouser. Lots of questions, then, in search of answers.
We soon discover that this is a tale that fluctuates between three or four youngsters, none of whom have anything to do with Dean Liddell’s children except that their story is set in Oxford one midsummer, sometime in the 1860s. Maguire gives us some early clues: for example, 4th July 1862 — when Carroll took the Liddell sisters boating — is identified as being ‘cool and rather wet’ but in Alice in Wonderland and in After Alice we are presented with an idyllic if somnolent midsummer’s day. Then there is Ada, a friend of Carroll’s Alice who gets a passing reference in Wonderland — here we have an Ada Boyce, but she’s a friend of a different Alice, Alice Clowd. The elder sister of this Alice, whom we spy reading the famous book “without pictures” (identified as A Midsummer Night’s Dream), is Lydia Clowd, not Lorinna Liddell. All this is enough to chase away any supposition that this is a story centred on either the real Alice or the fictional one.
In trying to escape from her governess, Miss Armstrong, Ada Boyce inadvertently falls down a hole. Her iron corset, designed to straighten her spine, falls off her and she enters a Wonderland very similar to that described in Alice in Wonderland: one full of contradictions, plays on language, metamorphosing creatures and contrary characters. Ada soon finds herself on the track of her friend Alice Clowd, who is always a step or two ahead of her. Along the way she meets up with Siam, the ward of a young American, who has also found his way into this Wonderland, though he has come via a looking glass in the Clowd household. Meanwhile, above ground, Lydia starts to look for her missing sister Alice, joining Miss Armstrong looking for Ada, missions that will prove to be fruitless.
Already the reader is liable to be confused. Where Carroll had just one protagonist meeting fantastical personages Maguire chooses to present the points of view of three children — Ada, Lydia and Siam — with significant roles played by Miss Armstrong and by the elusive Alice. What with Maguire imitating and almost trying to outdo Carroll in punning and wordplay, his attempt to divide our interest between several individuals proves too much at times, as does the to and fro of action above as well as below ground.
Remembering that the first Alice book began life as Alice’s Adventures Underground I totally understand that the author is trying to play on different notions of ‘underground’, as he has explained in an interview. These are the mythical associations of the land of the dead, plus technological change in 1860s London (the laying of the sewers and the development of the underground railway). But Maguire is also keen to introduce the concept of the underground railroad, the escape route for Black American slaves fleeing from exploitation and persecution (which is where the character Siam comes in). This last theme seems to me, as it has done for many other readers, a tacked-on idea which is poorly and inconsequentially integrated into the plot, however worthy the conception.
In fact, all the extraneous material — the appearances of an unnamed Charles Dodgson and the Liddell siblings (in a boat), plus a named Charles Darwin, for example — appears not only superfluous but also too clever by half. And what of the sly suggestion that Miss Armstrong is somehow responsible for the attempted drowning of her charge and her friend? It all seems somehow meaningless, like a ghost image on a photographic negative. There is, granted, an underlying theme of emancipation — of Victorian females from their literal and metaphorical straitjackets and Afro-Americans from forced enslavement — but little of this seems to relate to the Carrollian witticisms peppering the conversations Ada has with Wonderland denizens. And when it comes down to the bottom line, what is the point of trying to ape Lewis Carroll’s originality?
Clearly, Maguire is aware that he may be castigated for indulging in such presumptuous behaviour; he says in chapter 14, as an apologia, that a “story in a book has its own intentions, even if unknowable to the virgin reader;” but I suspect from what follows that this particular story has also passed the author by. Elsewhere — chapter 30 to be precise — he muses on Oxford as an inspiration for much literature (“perhaps we love our Oxford because it seems eternal,” he declares) though After Alice is not at all in the same league as the examples he cites.
After Alice is, in the last analysis, scattergun in its execution and leaves the reader wandering in their own Wonderland: why was this written, they will ask themselves. For me an answer may lie in a response he makes in the previously mentioned online interview.*
His mother, he tells us,
died in childbirth leaving my father as a widower and four children. I was the infant; I was seven days old when she hemorrhaged and died. And that is how every fairytale begins. The child is thrown into the perilous world—to use a phrase of Blake’s—a child is thrown into a perilous world by the death of a parent.
Fairytales read in childhood therefore “felt like veiled biographies of me.” In After Alice the Clowd family have lost their mother, leaving the widower father with one daughter who regularly disappears into an imaginary world and another who feels the responsibility of being the mistress of the house. Ada Boyce meanwhile struggles with a mother who exists in an alcoholic haze, a noisy newborn child and a governess who has issues of her own — no wonder she chafes against restrictions, whether being chaperoned when she leaves the house or having to wear her hideous orthopaedic corset. Finally, young Siam, following an inhumane and cruel childhood, has been rescued and brought to an alien country — we can only guess why he might be tempted to retreat into an imaginary world rather than exist in a real one where nothing makes much sense.
Maguire tells us he has never got over being “fascinated by the plight of children who have to make their way in a hostile, and unwelcoming, and ungenerous world, and yet do it anyway and survive.” This, it seems to me, is what this novel is struggling to voice; that it fails to do so in any decisive way means it lacks the emotional heart that would justify the rehash of an already perfect classic.
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* published by Broadly.