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.