- Alice’s Wonderland is my jam.
- What a place to discover British historical fiction.
I chose this book because I am kind of obsessed with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The idea to read a story that focuses on the “unknown” side characters in Alice’s life really sounded intriguing. And I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this book but not for the reasons you might think.
Maguire introduces several characters in Alice’s life and retells their stories while Alice is somewhere lost in Wonderland. He paints a picture of 19th century Oxford life rife with social struggle, families plagued with mundane day to day activities, romantic infatuations, proper and improper social etiquette, as well as religious views questioned by scientific ideas just to name a few.
Ada is Alice’s friend and neighbor and just so happens to come across the rabbit hole shortly after Alice fell into it. And of course she follows suit. Ada’s personality however is quite the opposite to Alice’s and thus her perceptions of the strange characters and fantastic occurrences she encounters are completely different. In fact, I could identify more so with Ada than with Alice. Ada has a bit of a stubborn and rebellious streak in her, much more tomboy than proper girl, with a particular liking for escaping her governess Miss Armstrong (who is stern, by the rules, and knows way too many family secrets). Yet, the happenings in Wonderland are just one part of this story, and I dare to postulate the less significant ones. Don’t get me wrong, Macguire pays homage to Lewis Carroll and targets true Alice fans by mentioning some of the lesser known Wonderland characters but I think the book shines brighter in other ways.
The inner dialogues of Miss Armstrong and Lydia (Alice’s sister in search for Alice) really represent the window into Oxford life and this is where the magic of the book lies. Through them, Macguire tackles issues of race (Lydia becomes infatuated with a Mr. Winter who rescued a young boy from slavery – her musings on this matter are worth the read alone), religion versus science (Darwin makes an appearance! – come on, this should for sure sell you the book), and social stigma (Miss Armstrong’s ideas of how to interact with a young man are quite different from Lydia’s).
All in all, while the book may fall short on surreal illustrations of Wonderland as we are used to from Carroll (and really, should anyone even try to imitate such a masterpiece?!), it offers a critical analysis of 19th Century England. This is not a book for someone wanting to get carried away in fantastical worlds but for someone who wants to understand the motivation behind Carroll’s escapes to such splendid, eccentric, outlandish, and at times absurd universes.