Tuesday, 25 August 2020

 Published in The Jamaica Observer literary magazine "Bookends" in August 2018

Down The Rabbit Hole We Go

     “Alice is about a girl being her own hero,” the 16 year-old said on the journey between May Pen and Kingston. We were having a literary discussion which included the original novel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and my memory threw up the memoir, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.

Both books are about an unaccompanied female going through challenging situations; both have the words "Wonder" and "Adventure" and “Land” in the title, and the books were published eight years apart. Seacole’s memoir was published in 1857, eight years before the novel in 1865. Could Carroll have been influenced by Jamaica's Mary Seacole when he created Alice? I did a split screen to compare the two books, and found similar scenes and themes.

Alice voluntarily goes down a rabbit hole without regard for personal safety, following her thirst for adventure and in pursuit of the White Rabbit, a rabbit is the lure in greyhound racing and also hounding. Mary Seacole left Jamaica, following her lure, money, which was forever elusive to her, but more important to her was her thirst for adventure and the thrill of testing her will against a world where the deck was stacked against success for a single Black woman.

Alice encountered systemic prejudice against her in Wonderland, then one by one she wins over the characters to become allies: the White Rabbit, kept mistaking her for his servant MARY-Ann, the caterpillar who spoke to her contemptuously, the duchess who was dismissive on their first meeting and the Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse at the tea party. Seacole wrote about racial and gender prejudice, whether against her or other persons, and how she got around it. Alice's encounters in Wonderland are mostly with male characters, notable exceptions being the duchess and the queen; akin to Seacole, whose adventures happen in the company of men.

Alice cries a sea of tears and swims in it with several animal characters: Seacole made journeys across the Caribbean Sea the Atlantic Ocean through Asia Minor to the Black Sea, pleased to interact with persons of different nationalities and ethnicities and accepting good and bad fortune as they came.

Alice carelessly drinks and eats mysterious substances that result in spectacular body changes: Seacole was renown for her preparations that healed victims of deadly diseases. Alice is illustrated wearing a pinafore, but had not been doing work when her adventure started. Could this be a reference to Seacole’s work as doctress and restaurateur, which required her to wear an apron every day?

Seacole extended herself too much to be successful in business, but always turned her situation around through hard work, friendships and alliances. Alice acquires nothing in Wonderland except experiences with memorable characters, none of whom advance her mission of getting home: pompous birds, haughty caterpillar, queer Cheshire Cat.

Alice's encounter with the duchess and the lunatic tea party fringe, I think, are allegories for the Crimean War which eventually brought Seacole into international prominence. The duchess is unfriendly to Alice, and thrusts her baby on her and sits in a kitchen where her cook is overusing black pepper. Perhaps this represents Florence Nightingale who respectfully received Seacole, but who is focused on giving care. Black pepper in the kitchen could be gunpowder and general munitions. Seacole becomes a hostess in the Crimea: Alice becomes a hostess at the tea party, a confusing affair which I suggest represents the chaos and confusion of war.

The trial of the knave in Carroll's book who was accused of the crime of stealing the queen's tarts is Seacole's return to society as a pauper from the Crimea. Tarts made with black pepper are special to the queen. Could these special black pepper tarts be a connection to the West Indies, the sweet source of British wealth built by Black labour?

After her memoir was published, Seacole’s care for British soldiers during the Crimean war was celebrated by citizens and royalty: In the final chapter of the novel, Alice grows taller than everyone else in the courtroom, including the queen and the king. She is tremendous, but they are revealed to be nothing more substantial than a deck of playing cards and then fallen leaves.

In my view, there is more than a passing similarity between the date of the publishing of the memoir and the first Alice book. The place of the family of ten-year old Alice Lidell in Carroll’s affections is secure, but which other single, unconnected, non-courtesan, proper, and determined woman could have influenced the creation of the fictional Alice, but Mary Seacole?

Do consider these things before you give the thumb down, "Off with her head!"

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