A Look At Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland Through the Pool of Tears
As the Royal Scholar of Wonderland, I, Bibwit Harte am tasked with peering through the Pool of Tears to see the myriad of creations inspired by Wonderland, from Lewis Carroll's fanciful novels, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass first published in 1865, to the 1951 animated movie Alice in Wonderland from Disney to the very accurate 2006 New York Times best-selling series The Looking Glass Wars with Princess Alyss by Frank Beddor.
Today we will explore the influence of The Royal Millinery on other worlds. You maybe quite surprised to learn that in the less imaginative realms, hats are never imbued with Caterpillar Thread and are very rarely used as weapons. The only acts of violence ever ascribed to this mundane millinery is they are on occasion referred to as “Killer Looks.” (chortle)
In spite of their less dangerous designs, several hats in this world (and their owners) have become rather famous. Here is a little list…
The Venus of Willendorf’s Woven Cap
While there are not many official records of hats before 3,000 BC, they probably were commonplace before that. The 27,000-to-30,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf figurine appears to depict a woman wearing a woven hat. Similar sculptures, first discovered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are traditionally referred to in archaeology as "Venus figurines", due to the widely-held belief that depictions of women represented an early fertility deity, perhaps a mother goddess. Hats have been around since the time of the mastodon.
The Cap-Crown of Queen Nefertiti
Nefertiti was a queen of the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, the great royal wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Nefertiti and her husband were known for a religious revolution, in which they worshipped solely the sun disc, Aten, as the only god. With her husband, she reigned at what was arguably the wealthiest period of ancient Egyptian. Nefertiti favored a flat-topped version of the blue war crown (or Cap-Crown.) The famous bust of Nefertiti depicts her wearing this crown. The crown linked the queen with the goddess Tefnut, a solar deity and it looked stunning! (Note to self: I should look into getting a similar hat made for Alyss of Wonderland.)
Archibald Armstrong’s Jester’s Cap
When King James I succeeded to the English throne, Armstrong was appointed court jester. Archibald modified the traditional “donkey eared” fool’s cap and added bells and a third floppy cone creating the now famous (or infamous) Jester’s Cap.
His influence was considerable and he was greatly courted and flattered, but his success appears to have gone to the jester’s head. He became presumptuous, insolent, and mischievous and was much disliked by the members of the court, but James favored him and as long as he pleased his audience of one, he was able to keep his head (and his hat) safely attached to his body. Certainly, if Archibald had been in the Court of Queen Redd of Wonderland, she would have said, “Off with his head!”
Marie Antoinette’s Boat Hat
Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France prior to the French Revolution and before she lost her head, she was known for her outlandish hats and hairstyles. In Paris, following a maritime skirmish in 1778, women of fashion commemorated what they saw as a French victory against the British with the Coiffure à la Belle Poule, an elaborate hairstyle containing a replica of the ship itself.
The Queen was not to be outdone by her courtiers, so she created the most lavish nautical fascinator of them all. Certainly, this elaborate headpiece did nothing to silence claims of her extravagance. Queen Genevieve of Wonderland (Queen of Hearts) would have never tolerated such decadent behavior! Her royal subjects were her priority.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s Bicorne
French emperor Napoleon understood the importance of branding, and throughout his life used imagery and clothing to convey power and status. His most famous hat was his black-felted beaver fur bicorne. The imposing nature of this chapeau gave the Emperor some much needed stature. Traditionally, the bicorne, with its distinctive deep gutter and two pointed corners, was worn with the corners facing to the front and back, but so as to be distinct on the battlefield, Napoleon wore the hat sideways so that anyone scanning the crowds would instantly know him by his jauntily angled hat.
Davy Crockettwas a celebrated 19th-century American folk hero, frontiersman, soldier and politician. Even after he left his deep woods home to become a member of the United States House of Representatives, he still would frequently don his signature cap to remind himself (and others) of his humble beginnings. Coonskin caps are fur hats made from the skin of a raccoon, with the animal’s tail hanging down the back.
The caps were originally worn by Native Americans, but were appropriated by 18th century frontiersmen as hunting caps. Davy Crockett, who is frequently depicted wearing a coonskin cap, seems to have had an authentic connection to them. He wore the hat during the famous Battle at the Alamo and the presence of the coon skin cap allowed his battle torn body to be identified.
Abraham Lincoln’s Stovepipe Hat
Sixteenth president of the United States Abraham Lincolnwas exceedingly tall at 6 foot 4 inches, and the addition of his famous top hat accentuated his height even further. Lincoln used to keep papers and speeches tucked inside his hat and he would fish them out when needed, making his hat not just a natty bit of headgear but also a useful repository. The most famous of Lincoln’s stovepipe hats was the very one he wore on the night of his assassination at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865. Gentle readers, you may recall that Hatter Madigan once instructed President Lincoln on the art of Hat Throwing. This adventure was chronicled in the thrilling tome, Mad with Wonder.
Winston Churchill’s Homburg
British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill was renowned for his hats. Churchill himself once wrote a humorous essay on the subject, remarking that as he did not have a distinctive hairstyle, spectacles, or facial hair like other famous statesmen. Cartoonists and photographers of the day focused instead on his love of headgear.
Churchill wore a number of styles of hat, from top hats to bowler hats, but he is probably most famous for his homburg. The homburg is a felt hat with a curved brim, a dent that runs from front to back, and a grosgrain ribbon that forms a band. On the subject of homburgs, we are all very familiar with the Wonderland resident, Molly Homberg. Churchill certainly would have admired her spirit!
Jackie Kennedy’s Pillbox Hat
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was one of America’s greatest style icons, and one of her most memorable looks was the pillbox hat perched on the back of her head. Kennedy had many versions of the pillbox, but the most famous is the watermelon pink one she wore with matching pink Chanel-style suit on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Jackie, who had been at his side in her pink suit, was covered in her husband’s blood. When aides repeatedly suggested she change her clothes, according to biographer William Manchester Jackie refused, saying "No, let them see what they've done."
If you enjoyed my little Hat History, please return soon for more posts about all things Alyss (and Alice) in Wonderland!
Lewis Carroll, the Writer that got Alice In Wonderland Wrong
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who gained international fame as Lewis Carroll, was born in Cheshire, England in 1832, the eldest son of a conservative, middle-class Anglican Family. A shy loner with a pronounced stutter, a sufferer of migraines and seizures, he was a precocious, scholastically gifted boy, and success in school came easily to him when he chose to apply himself; the young Charles, it seemed, was prone to distraction, to reverie. Nonetheless, his talents brought him to Oxford University’s Christ Church, where, in 1855, after earning first class honors and a B.A., he was awarded a Mathematical Lectureship. In 1861, he became one of the youngest deacons in the Anglican Church.
By all accounts, Reverend Dodgson was an austere, fastidious man, a puttering, fussy bachelor inclined toward conservatism in politics, religion, and social mores. His daily routines were precisely choreographed and adhered to; he inevitably took the same routes from his rooms in Christ Church’s Tom Quad to lecture halls and back again. He made diagrams of where guests sat when they came to dine with him, noting down what they ate so that the next time these guests visited, he wouldn’t serve them the same dish again. He summarized and catalogued every letter he wrote or received.
Such a man would seem an unlikely candidate to author Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, whose enchanting nonsense has held the world under its whimsical sway for over 150 years and counting. But the history of imagination is filled with surprising paradoxes, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was the greatest paradox of all.
Respected, comfortable, with a small circle of friends, contentment yet eluded the thirty-year-old Oxford Don when, in 1856, Dean Henry Liddell arrived at Christ Church with his family. Until then, a shadow of disappointment had hung over Dodgson’s life—he couldn’t have articulated why—but it began to lift as he befriended the Liddells and their three daughters, Edith, Lorina, and Alice.
Especially Alice, the youngest child, an adoptee.
Dodgson had always been more at ease with children than with adults, but in Alyss’s presence, the constriction inside him relaxed to a greater degree; the guardrails he’d so carefully set around his daily life wobbled. He found himself again drifting into reveries, as he hadn’t done since he was a boy.
It wasn’t anything untoward that drew him to Alice Liddell. She had an ineffable quality, an intriguing coupling of wisdom and innocence in her look and manner. Oddly, Dodgson felt as if he might learn from her—he didn’t know what exactly, only that whatever it was might dissipate the mysterious pall he felt over everything he did.
One afternoon, he took the Liddell girls out for boating trip to Godstow. They stopped to rest, and while Edith and Lorina played in the shallows of the River Isis, as that particular stretch of the Thames was called, Dodgson lounged on the grass with Alice.
“Don’t you want to join your sisters?” he asked.
“No,” she replied.
Dodgson thought this a charming answer. “But why not?”
“After you’ve been a princess and had your queendom taken from you, as I have, it’s hard to get excited about a mess of fish and weeds in a river.”
Dodgson laughed. “Whatever are you talking about?”
Alice explained that her real name was Alyss Heart. She spelled it out: “A-l-y-s-s.”
Her mother was Queen Genevieve of Wonderland, she said. She and the queen and a party of courtiers had been celebrating her birthday in Heart Palace when her nasty aunt Redd, a grimacing woman with flaming red hair, attacked. It was a horrible, bloody scene, with Redd’s raging card soldiers fighting Queen Genevieve’s chessmen.
“Card soldiers?” Dodgson interrupted. “Chessmen?”
Alyss tried to describe the platoons of fifty-two soldiers who would lie in a stack before being dealt into action, then unfolded and fanned out to fight. She did her best to present him with a picture of the pawns and rooks and bishops under General Doppelgänger’s command, but what she really wanted to tell Dodgson was that she didn’t know what had happened to her mother, though she assumed the worst.
“You don’t know?” Dodgson gently pressed.
No, Alice explained, because Redd’s most fearsome henchthing, The Cat, had tried to kill her and she’d had to jump into The Pool of Tears with royal bodyguard Hatter Madigan, a graduate of the Millinery, where Wonderland’s elite security personnel trained. She had lost Hatter in the pool but was sure he would find her eventually and take her back to Wonderland.
Alice went on to tell Dodgson everything she still remembered about Wonderland: the giant mushrooms, caterpillar-oracles, tarty tarts, and looking glass travel via something called The Crystal Continuum.
“Let me see if I understand you correctly,” he said. “People can travel through looking glasses, enter through one and exit from another?”
“Yes. I’ve tried it here but none of the glasses work.”
“Tell me more about this Red Queen of yours,” Dodgson encouraged, thinking of Queen Victoria, her excesses and intimidations.
He took out pencil and paper, taking notes and sketching, as Alice went on at length about Redd—and about The Cat, and Hatter, whose top hat flattened into a weapon of spinning
blades. She described how General Doppelgänger could split into the twin figures of General Doppel and General Gänger, and each of them could then split into twins as many times as they wanted. She talked of her tutor Bibwit Harte, an albino two meters tall, with bluish-green veins pulsing visibly beneath his skin and ears a bit large for his head—ears so sensitive that he could hear someone whispering from three streets away. And, her voice dipping low in a sadness different in character from when she talked of her mother, she told Dodgson about her best friend, Dodge Anders, son of Sir Justice Anders whom the Cat had killed in front of her eyes at her birthday party.
He was the boy. The reverend was flattered, though he believed Alice’s stories to be the result of hardships endured before the Liddells had adopted her. It was likely, he supposed, that whatever had befallen Alice’s birth parents and landed her at the Charing Cross Foundling Hospital had been quite traumatic, and that she invented stories to cope with the horrors of her life. Mere stories? No, an elaborate fantasy life—harsh, to be sure, but startlingly inventive.
“You have the most amazing imagination, Alice,” he told her.
“I did,” she huffed. “It hasn’t been so powerful since I’ve been here.”
Charles Dodgson, energized and inspired to a pitch he’d never been before, didn’t realize it then, but with his pen he was going to try and bring some relief to this delightful child, this product of unknown traumas. He would transform her gruesome, violent imaginings into the ridiculous, rendering them laughable rather than things to be feared. And if, by turning Hatter Madigan into the Mad Hatter, General Doppelgänger into Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and Redd’s assassin—who could morph from an ordinary kitten into a murderous humanoid with feline head and claws—into the grinning Cheshire Cat; if while Dodgson did all of this, he also managed to satirize the current state of British politics and its major actors, well, all the better.
Dodgson—let’s call him by his nom de plume, Lewis Carroll— had written poems and little satirical works before, even published a few of them in journals he deemed not very special. (It’s curious to note that he’d first used the pen name Lewis Carroll the year he met Alice Liddell, for a poem he published in 1856.) Still, not Carroll’s earlier publications, not mathematical puzzles, not the beauty of logic, had fired up his imagination as much as transforming what he deemed to be Alice’s make-believe into a playful adventure novel.
He saw Alice regularly over the next several years, during which he found himself aglow with creativity. The world looked somehow brighter, more vibrant, and for the first time he thought himself to be truly happy. He had already taken up the new art form of photography (again, curiously, in the same year that he met the Liddells), but now his explorations of that medium increased until he was something of a master. He created an invention for taking notes in the dark, as well as an early iteration of a game that we know today as Scrabble. In mathematics, he developed new ideas in linear algebra. And when not exercising his imagination in these various ways, Carroll found time to befriend gifted artists and scholars—John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and numerous others.
With the manuscript of what he had titled Alice’s Adventures Underground at last finished, he presented it to Alice Liddell one afternoon on the banks of the River Cherwell. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with a black ribbon. Dodgson watched anxiously as Alice untied the ribbon and carefully removed the wrapping.
“Oh!” the girl exclaimed, her mouth flat-lining in displeasure.
What sort of title was Alice’s Adventures Underground? She wanted to know. And why was her name misspelled when she had correctly spelled it out for him? And who was Lewis Carroll?
“I thought it would be more festive than saying it was by me, a stodgy old reverend,” Carroll said.
Festive? She had told him little that was festive. Alice opened the manuscript. Its dedication took the form of a poem, in which her name was again misspelled. Her gaze caught on one of the stanzas:
"The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders, wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird or beast –
And half believed it true."
“Dream-child?” she murmured with growing concern. “Half believed?”
She turned to the first chapter. Carroll noted at once the quiver of her bottom lip, how she slumped as if she’d had the wind knocked out of her.
“I admit that I took a few liberties with your story,” he said. “Do you recognize the tutor fellow you once described to me? He’s the white rabbit character. I got the idea for him upon discovering that the letters of the tutor’s name could be made to spell ‘white rabbit.’ Here, let me show you.”
Carroll took a pencil and small notebook from the inside pocket of his coat, but Alice didn’t want to look.
“You mean you did this on purpose?” she asked. He had purposely twisted her memories—which, with his help, she had hoped to prove to everyone were true—into this foolish, nonsensical book?
“I . . . I thought it . . . m-m-might help you,” Carroll stammered.
Alice jumped to her feet, yelling. “No one is ever going to believe me now! You’ve ruined everything! You’re the cruelest man I’ve ever met, Mr. Dodgson, and if you had believed a single word I told you, you’d know how very cruel that is! I never want to see you! Never, never, never!”
She ran, leaving Carroll at the riverbank. Shaken, unsure of what had just happened, he picked up the manuscript, still warm from Alice’s touch, fearing that this was as close to her as he’d ever be again.
The publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandmet a lukewarm reception at first, but within six years, it became a phenomenal commercial success. “Lewis Carroll” was famous, and the book’s royalties gave Dodgson the financial security to do whatever he wished. Although pleased by the public’s reception of his work, he preferred to remain at Oxford, teaching, serving tea to close friends. In short, he preferred to live modestly as a retiring bachelor.
Some of this might have had to do with depression. Alice was making good on her word never to see him again, and all friendly association with the Liddell family had ceased on June 27th, 1863. Without the enlivening spark of Alice’s presence, the pall Dodgson had known before meeting her resettled over his life. His interest in photography deserted him. He invented nothing.
He had heard through gossip that Alice resented what fame had come to her as the purported inspiration for Adventures. How it must have galled her, he supposed, that in betraying her memories with his book (as she believed), he had thrust a fame on her founded on absurd falsehoods. He gave up hope of ever spending time with her again and uncharacteristically destroyed four entire volumes of his diaries and ripped pages out of others— pages that detailed afternoons with Alice Liddell, as well as the day he broke with the whole Liddell family.
Life trudged on. Dodgson pursued his mathematical interests and wrote poetry, but the efforts felt mechanical. By 1870, after the death of his father had darkened his overall mood even further, he recognized that he needed Alice, his “dream-child” (he thought the designation a compliment), to help him—not just to live as fully in his imaginings as he’d once been able to, but also for the strength she somehow gave him to contend with a world full of grotesqueries, corruption, and petty vanities.
Dodgson never would have believed that Alice Liddell was one day going to return to him: a young woman with enlightened notions, on the cusp of marriage, who would not only forgive him for his so-called betrayal but recognize that, because of the fame his book had brought her, she had an opportunity to effect substantive societal change that wouldn’t otherwise have been available to her.
All of these things came to pass, reminding Dodgson that, in his best days, he had always preferred to believe in the impossible. Happily for him, another impossible thing happened: as Miss Alice Liddell recruited Charles Lutwidge Dodgson into her schemes for bettering the lives of the unfortunate, he discovered a world that even Lewis Carroll couldn’t have imagined.
Who is Alyss? Shatter the Myth, Discover the Real Alice In Wonderland
Meet Alyss Heart of Wonderland: a princess brought up with all the entitlement due an heir to the throne. On her seventh birthday, she was targeted in a bloody coup perpetrated by her aunt Redd, in which her father and mother, the king and queen, were killed. The royal bodyguard Hatter Madigan (the real Mad Hatter) whisked her to relative safety through The Pool of Tears, a portal to other worlds, but—
Swirling waters and a strong undercurrent wrenched Alyss out of Hatter’s grasp.
Alone, she shot out of a dirty street puddle in the middle of a soot-stained, rain-soaked city. She wiped the sopping sleeve of her birthday dress across her eyes, blinked. It was still there: the filthy, gray city.
London, England. 1859.
A shout. A great clatter of creaking wood and clomping hooves, and Alyss—feeling the fuming breath of the horses as they passed—was almost run over by an ornate carriage.
“God save the queen!” someone shouted.
Disoriented, Alyss raced after the carriage that she believed was carrying her mother, only to be stopped by guards outside Buckingham Palace. They weren’t about to let this wet, bedraggled urchin through the gates.
“Like as not, you intend the queen some harm,” one of them teased.
“The queen is my mother!” Alyss declared.
“You don’t say?” The soldier turned to the others. “You hear that? This little girl’s mother is the queen. We might have to die protecting her, I suppose.”
“All hail the royal lady,” another soldier said with a bow, causing his colleagues to laugh.
Hurt, indignant, increasingly afraid, Alyss tried to find her way back to the puddle that had landed her in this nightmare. But there were so many streets, so many puddles.
This is not real. It cannot be real, she repeated to herself.
In all her life, she had never been alone before. There had always been servants, tutors, palace guardsmen watching out for her, pampering her.
Nightmare, hallucination: whatever this was had to end.
I am at my birthday party. The flowers in the palace courtyard are singing to me. Courtiers are smiling, and—
She was soon in despair, jumping up and down in a single puddle, sobbing; it was impossible to determine whether the wetness on her cheeks was from tears or from the splash of water.
“Not the best means of bathing I’ve ever seen,” said Quigly Gaffer, watching from a safe distance.
Sniffling, as regally as she could given her sodden, confused state, Alyss explained to Quigly that she was Wonderland royalty. He didn’t believe her, but he was intrigued by this pretty, lost little girl and took to calling her princess. Five years her senior, he was the leader of a gang of street urchins—orphaned kids who fanned out through the city during the day, scamming and thieving, and met up in alleys at night, sharing what food scraps and money they had scrounged together.
Out of a necessity that came with a frequently empty belly, and with nights spent in trash-filled alleys, Alyss soon understood: this world was no dream; Queen Victoria was not her mother. She could either collapse in paralyzing sadness for everything she had lost, or she could do what she must to survive. And she had to survive. Hatter Madigan would not leave her here. He would find her and bring her back to her rightful place in Wonderland.
She vowed to stay alive until he came.
In Quigly’s company, Alyss was exposed to an underclass of society she otherwise could never have fathomed, as mollycoddled as her previous life had been. She learned—deep inside herself, where there were no words, her experiences shaping the woman she would become—that for most of the universe’s inhabitants, life wasn’t all tarty tarts and unconditional love; it was a struggle against hardship, unfairness, abuse and adversity, where even to survive—let alone survive with dignity—was heroic. For many, she learned (again, deep down, a knowledge beyond words) that survival sometimes meant fighting back against unjust societal conventions, such as criminalization of the poor. If she and Quigly and his gang didn’t scam and thieve, they wouldn’t eat: they could be petty criminals or starve.
Nights, Alyss regaled the youngest orphans with her memories of Wonderland and tales of the engendering power of Imagination. She was still impossibly young, of course, and yet the strife of the streets was hardening her, wising her up: Alyss understood that her parents were dead. Visions of the bloody coup perpetrated by her aunt Redd came to her on sleepless nights: her mother’s chessmen cut down by rogue card soldiers; the frightening creature with a feline head and claws, as fierce in combat as Hatter Madigan, that stormed about gutting innocent courtiers and civilians while she herself hid under a table. These visions were Alyss’s truth, her history. Yet she told the orphans, albeit in wistful tones, only of the good in Wonderland—the singing flowers, the radiant skies, the inventiveness of its citizenry, the seemingly magical things a strong imagination could do.
Quigly thought she was weaving otherworldly tales so that the youngsters could momentarily lose themselves and forget the squalor in which they lived. He didn’t like indulging them in make-believe when cruel reality was all around. No amount of imagination could rescue them, he complained.
“But what I’m telling them is real,” Alyss protested. “And the power of imagination, it’s all true . . . I can prove it.”
She used her own significant imaginative powers to make a dandelion flower sing.
“Nice trick,” Quigly sniffed. He’d heard about magicians who could “throw” their voices.
“It’s not a trick,” Alyss insisted.
But Quigly shrugged her off. As long as she could make a flower sing, she could earn money for them by performing on the street. The day came, however, when she was unable to rouse the dandelion to song. She could only guess at the reasons for this, which she tried to explain.
“Maybe the longer I’m away from Wonderland, the weaker my imagination becomes?”
She wasn’t wrong, though she didn’t know the more specific reason why her imagination was weakening—it had everything to do with her fading memories. Because it was getting harder for her to clearly recall Wonderland sights and sounds; and aside from the coup itself, the bloody event that had exiled her to Earth, doubts about what exactly she remembered were creeping in.
Quigly accused her of refusing to do the “flower trick,” believing she planned to perform without him and keep all the earnings for herself. The more she insisted that she was not refusing to do anything, that her imaginative power was real, the more resentful he became. Which was Alyss’s first hint that proclaiming the truth of Wonderland and her history might prevent her from getting along peaceably with people in this world.
Hoping to regain Quigly’s confidence, she volunteered to help him rob a butcher shop. She was caught during the robbery, and Quigly, a chicken under each arm, made his own escape instead of coming to her rescue.
At the center of a disorienting swirl of events, it was as if Alyss were in a new Pool of Tears. In the police station—raucous with unsavory characters—her instinct to claim her identity as a princess reasserted itself, and she balked at being rudely thrown in a cell with drunks and worse—men, women, children, murderers, petty thieves, and the insane all together. The bobbies were momentarily distracted from her complaints when a prostitute was brought in, loudly claiming to be a friend of some duke. They laughed, spat on the prostitute, and beat her up before throwing her into Alyss’s cell. Then—
“What was that you said?” a bobby asked Alyss. “Who’d you say you are?”
She lowered her face and stayed silent.
She was placed in the Charing Cross foundling hospital. It was no palace. Sure, she had a bed instead of an alley to sleep in, but she shared a room with twenty other would-be adoptees, none of whom wanted to hear anything about Wonderland. They assumed that Alyss, with her stories, was trying to prove that she was special, above them. Every day, she was teased and taunted; every day, lectured by the Charing Cross wardens that she couldn’t hide in a fantasy world, that misfortune abounded and she must face it with fortitude, not with escapist claptrap.
“Do you like it here?” one warden asked her.
Then she’d keep prattle of Wonderland to nil, the warden said, because if she didn’t, she’d never get adopted. At first it was a strategy of survival—for Alyss not to talk about Wonderland, to quit telling her “stories” instead of suffering the indignities that came from insisting on truths no one believed. Months passed, and she worked hard to fade into the background of things, to be just another orphan ever in hope of adoption.
Yet memories of Redd’s coup—and she did still consider them memories—haunted her. In her mind’s eye, she frequently saw Redd’s feline assassin swatting Sir Justice Anders, the leader of the palace guard, to the ground and raking a claw across his chest. She saw her friend Dodge, her best friend and Sir Justice’s son, bolt out from under the table where he’d been hiding to snatch up his father’s sword and attack the feline, only to be slapped across the dining room with four gashes of blood on his cheek.
It felt to Alyss as if all pleasantness associated with Wonderland had been painted completely over with violence.
And her imaginative powers? They alternated between weak and nonexistent. On occasion, in a rare private moment, she could get some small twig to give out a peep, but it exhausted her, and she no longer understood the point of trying. Hatter Madigan wouldn’t be coming for her, she was convinced. He was likely dead, along with her parents. Sleeping in a drafty room with twenty other girls at Charing Cross was her life now. This, and the days she and others were illegally hired out by a warden to work as “mule scavengers” and “piecers” in textile mills, where girls regularly had arms and hands torn off by the machines that spun cotton into thread (“mules”). Gruesome as these accidents were, Alyss would be particularly scarred by one she witnessed, in which a girl had her head crushed by a mule. Scarred and motivated, for though she had no way of knowing it at the time, her hours of child labor would drive her as an adult to fight against the morally dubious but widespread exploitation of children.
To survive then, Alyss imbibed deep draughts of conformity, but her beauty would always cause her to stand out—a beauty that seemed heightened on account of what people mistook as her passivity.
After she’d been a year at Charing Cross, Alyss understood that prospective parents came to the orphanage to, in essence, shop—choosing a child that they believed would suit their tastes and temperaments.
She decided to do some shopping of her own.
The longer she remained at the orphanage, she knew, the greater the odds she would succumb to a gruesome accident at a mill or factory. Yet if the couple that came browsing for a child seemed the type that would treat her as little more than a servant or pet, she subtly compromised her chances of being chosen—hiding, coughing as if she might have tuberculosis, or throwing enough of a fit to turn them off but not anger the Charing Cross wardens too much, because if she angered the wardens too much, they wouldn’t try to place her.
Then Dean Liddell and his wife, a gentle couple who sometimes visited the orphanage, smiled at her, though they first smiled at another girl, Lucy. Before they could get to know Lucy, however, Alyss took a chance, fearing she’d miss another opportunity as good as this one.
“You look like my mother,” she murmured of Mrs. Liddell. “She was a queen.”
Appreciating imagination and independent thought, the Liddells were taken with Alyss’s stories of a queendom where she was a princess. To Lucy’s misfortune, their smiles lingered on Alyss alone, and a door opened for her into another new world: that of quaint, staid Oxford.
Adopted by the Liddells, Alyss found herself surrounded by middle-class comforts, by music and literature and art. She had two younger sisters, Edith and Lorina, and she told them what she still definitely remembered about Wonderland. Some of this was innocent enough—her descriptions of her albino tutor, for example, and the general who could split himself into two identical Wonderlanders. But the rest? The murders of her parents, the deception and cruelty of Redd, a woman who wore a dress of flesh-eating roses? It wasn’t any sort of story the young girls wanted to hear.
One day, Alyss and her sisters were picnicking with Reverend Charles Dodgson, a family friend, and while Edith and Lorina went off to pick flowers, Alyss mentioned Wonderland to the reverend. He was intrigued and encouraged her to continue in a way that no one ever had. She believed that she had at last found, in this peculiar bachelor, an ear sympathetic to her history.
Dodgson took notes and doodled while Alyss unspooled her tale, which notes he later worked into a more complete form and presented to Alyss as a novel entitled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He had given himself the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.
“But this is full of nonsense!” Alyss said, her pulse quickening as she flipped through the book in which her dark truth had been transformed into lighthearted, romping characters.
Lewis Carroll gently explained that he believed Alyss had made up her horrific stories because of the traumas she’d experienced on the streets and in the orphanage. The characters she had told him about represented certain demons to her, he believed, and by turning them into the silly creatures of his book, he hoped she would learn that they were nothing to fear—that she could, in fact, dismiss them from her now pleasant existence.
Alyss felt as if her heart has been scraped raw. Reverend Dodgson didn’t believe her? He had never believed her? And now he’d written this stupid book that made fun of all she’d confessed to him?
“I never want to speak to you again!” she cried and ran home.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was, of course, a tremendous commercial success, which, especially the first couple of years after its publication, only deepened Alyss’s sense of Dodgson’s betrayal. The book turned her into a minor celebrity, a fact she resented and did her best to ignore. But as the years passed, and though she still kept Dodgson at a distance, resentment lessened amid the hubbub of her days as a middle-class Victorian young lady.
And with the years and the hubbub, Alyss Heart of Wonderland more and more lost herself to Alice Liddell of Oxford.
Her few remaining Wonderland memories grew increasingly unreal. At first she tried to convince herself that she still believed in them, but then she couldn’t be sure if something she “remembered”—Redd’s dress of flesh-eating roses, for instance— had actually existed or if perhaps she had made it up. For a while her fading memories persisted in her dreams, until finally, it happened:
Where Wonderland had once been only in her head, it was now not even there.
Lewis Carroll’s characters had completely usurped the real Wonderlanders of her past, and as her memories were erased, so too were her powerful imaginative abilities. Alice Liddell couldn’t have imagined the faintest peep from the smallest flower, no matter how hard she tried. Not that she did.
Alice has now grown into a thoroughly Victorian young lady, attending concerts and teas while her parents lobby for certain respectable gentlemen to become her husband. Rather, she has almost grown into a thoroughly Victorian young lady, since she does have modern ideas about how orphans and the poor should be treated (she revisits Charing Cross and learns that Lucy, her rival for the Liddells, had died there of tuberculosis), and about women being allowed to study at Oxford, to say nothing of having more control over their own lives.
And so here she is, Alice Liddell, a middle-class twenty-year old, busy with suitors and with passionate schemes for improving the lives of the unfortunate, for whom Wonderland—once a dream—is about to again become reality.