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If you adored Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s hugely popular prequel set in a reimagined Oz, you may be intrigued by the idea of After Alice, his new novel published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic Victorian fantasy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Regrettably, this literary pastiche is far less engaging than Wicked. Only hardcore Alicedevotees will have the stamina to push through its unevenly paced narrative, and even they may be disappointed by the oddly lifeless denouement. This is a case where an editor really should have said: “You know what? Let’s lose that last chapter where Darwin just rambles on.”

After Alice is not a sequel to Carroll’s Alice and its companion, Through the Looking-Glass,despite its title’s implication. Instead, it is Maguire’s tale of what happens to the bemused people left aboveground when young Alice Clowd falls down that famous rabbit hole. Her friend, Ada Boyce, goes tumbling after Alice into Wonderland. Thus Ada spends the rest of the book chasing after Alice, who doesn’t reappear until nearly the end.

Ada, the local vicar’s 10-year-old daughter, is nobody’s favorite child. She often is cruelly ignored by servants and parents fixated on her sickly baby brother. “That lummoxing galootress,” the family’s Irish cook calls her; but Ada has a lumpish fortitude that makes up somewhat for her lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, motherless Alice is mostly absent from the story and is only vaguely sketched as a mysterious creature gifted at evading supervision by adults or by her teenage sister, Lydia — the same sister who, in the original Alice’s opening paragraph, reads a book “with no pictures or conversations in it.” It is Lydia who is the center of the aboveground narrative, just as Ada is the center of the underground story.

Maguire, however, fails to make either girl into a compelling heroine who deserves the reader’s investment of time and interest.

When the two younger girls disappear, their elders don’t seem particularly worried about where they may have gone. Lydia, at 15, is far more interested in herself and in the handsome young American abolitionist who has come to Oxford for the day, shepherding the august Charles Darwin on a visit to her father. Indeed, the only one who frets about Ada’s absence is her governess, whose chief concern is that she might be sacked if her charge doesn’t turn up soon.

Underground, Ada is magically freed from her torturous back brace (worn for an unnamed condition, probably scoliosis). Thus liberated, she meets up with many of Carroll’s famous characters, from the Mad Hatter and March Hare to the Walrus and the Carpenter. Maguire’s rendering of these characters is, unfortunately, far less witty than Carroll’s, and nothing particularly original or enchanting is added to any of their established personalities.

At times, Maguire’s prose becomes so elaborately arch that he appears to be striving vainly for Nabokovian heights (an impression confirmed by a bit of dialogue that is an obvious hat tip to the master’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle). Granted, he’s trying to tell a story in the florid Victorian style.

But Maguire over-eggs the pudding with a barrage of dense sentences such as this one: “To a deity lolling overhead on bolsters of zephyr, however, the city rises as if out of some underground sea, like Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, that fantasia about the submerged Breton cathedral rising once every hundred years off the island of Ys.” That came in the fourth paragraph of Chapter 1, and even now I am not quite sure why that sentence needed to be there. Only when Maguire stops trying so hard to impress does the narrative sporadically achieve some rhythm and flow.

In addition, serious real-world topics — death, abolition and Darwinism — drain much of the potentially playful tone from the chapters of the book that are set aboveground. In the underground chapters, the fantasy may not be consistently comedic, but at least the Cheshire Cat isn’t discussing the theory of evolution.

Wonderland has its downside, to be sure, what with the Queen of Hearts’ fondness for ordering beheadings. But compared to the dreariness of the Victorian age as depicted by Maguire, it is perhaps no wonder that one lonely, displaced character chooses to stay in Carroll’s fantasy land, rather than return to a real world that can never truly be home.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer. 

After Alice

Gregory Maguire

(William Morrow, $26.99)


My recent book review in the Sunday Dallas Morning News:

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Think of Alice in Wonderland, and you probably see a pinafored little girl with long, pale hair, the image from Sir John Tenniel’s classic illustrations.

But the real Alice was born in the mid-19th century, a daughter of the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford University. As a child, Alice Pleasance Liddell wore her hair in a short, dark bob. In a famous photograph taken by a family friend, she is dressed as a ragged Gypsy girl, and her direct gaze is disconcerting: both innocent and worldly wise.

The family friend who took that picture was Charles L. Dodgson, the Oxford mathematics don and shy, lonely bachelor who became a surrogate uncle to Alice and her sisters. Their relationship is at the heart of Melanie Benjamin’s fine historical novel, Alice I Have Been (Delacorte, $25).

After 145 years, Dodgson’s tale of a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole and into a world of wonder is still an object of literary fascination. Just one month ago, a collector paid $115,000 at auction for a red morocco-bound presentation edition of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Dodgson gave the book to Alice Liddell, and she inscribed her name in it.

In fact, Dodgson – who became famous as Lewis Carroll – sent his muse a copy of every new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1872 sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Yet he became mysteriously estranged from the Liddells around the time he wrote the fantasy he originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

“There was no escaping him,” the fictional Alice Liddell says of Dodgson in Alice I Have Been. With the 1865 publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “our lives were seemingly bound together for eternity. … Alice in Wonderland. I would never be anything but.”

In Alice I Have Been, Benjamin re-creates a vanished Victorian world among the dreaming spires of Oxford, a scholarly kingdom where Alice and her sisters grew up in the privileged social nexus of the deanery. “Mr. Dodgson,” who lives just across the way, is awkward among adults but at ease when he takes his little friends, the Liddell sisters, on picnics and outings.

The don is a stuttering child at heart, and no one questions his kindness to the dean’s children. But young Alice grows emotionally attached to Dodgson, who makes her feel special, valued in a way that her busy parents never do.

Dodgson’s affection for Alice, meanwhile, is a pure one. Or is it? When Alice is 11, there are muted but devastating repercussions for all. As Alice’s childhood ends, so does her family’s friendship with Dodgson.

Still, the don keeps his promise and writes the fantasy he had first told the Liddell girls on an idyllic summer outing. A single, privately printed copy goes to Alice; later, Dodgson rewrites Alice for publication, and it is a sensation. Alice – who enters a doomed romance with Queen Victoria’s youngest son – must keep the secrets of her unconventional childhood throughout her very conventional life.

Benjamin artfully weaves a story – much of it historical fact, embellished with fiction – remembered from the perspective of Alice in 1932. By then she is a widow of 80 whose one surviving son wants to exploit his mother’s status as the “real Alice.”

“But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland,” the “real Alice” thinks. “Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.”

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

PLAN YOUR LIFE: Melanie Benjamin will speak at 7 p.m. March 19 during Late Night at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St . Tickets, free with museum admission, can be reserved at DallasMuseumof or 214-922-1818.