From the 27th March, the V&A will display the most comprehensive collection of everything Alice, creating its own wonderland. Coinciding with the exhibition launch, is Jake Fior’s complex novel Through a Looking Glass Darkly, in which he took on the task of reworking Carroll’s second book in the Alice series,Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Fior began the book with the intention to reissue the original novel with updated and colourised illustrations, but he in turn fell down his own rabbit hole. As a child Fior was struck by the later novel, but when he re-read it the ‘atmosphere of brooding menace’ that he had loved was largely missing. The first Chapter even had a strangely saccharine tone, misaligned with that of the first novel. The writer puts it: ‘Have you ever misheard song lyrics and found years later that your misheard ones make more sense to you than the originals?’, and began reimagining the novel as he had previously envisioned it.
The Alice books have proved fertile ground for reinvention in literature, film, and of course fashion. The books’ illustrator Sir John Tennial’s iconic illustrations of Alice coined the term Aliceband for the hair accessory, which have consistently cropped up on catwalks and the stylish – as recent examples are Gucci, Susie Bubble and Bella Hadid. To see the characters of Carroll’s series in colour, is to enter into Alice’s world in a new way. Her dress is not just blue but pink, yellow, and green, with the slightly acidic colours of the illustrations conjuring all the magical discord of the text.
Fior’s vision of Alice comes 150 years after Carroll’s, where we find her as an assertive, very real teenager. We meet Alice as she’s just found out her poor result in a Maths exam, anxious about her mum’s reaction. As she traverses through the looking glass, the beautiful and sometimes terrifying fantasy is also an active psychological landscape, afterall we are told that a looking glass is for ‘looking at yourself within.’
In his reinvention of the 1871 novel, Fior stresses the supernatural, a history embedded in the margins of the original text. Fior uncovered Carroll’s intense preoccupation with mysticism when he was researching, finding that the writer had shelves of books on magic and the supernatural in his library. Learning this, Fior decided to name his heroine Alice Lidell, after the childhood friend of Lewis Carroll, and includes the real woman’s relative Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers in the narrative, who founded magical society The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn. He does not anticipate the Alice purists liking these new elements – the novel only includes roughly 30% of the original text – but as he says, ‘you can’t create anything of value with a particular audience in mind.’ This novel can be appreciated by avid Alice admirers and those new to Carroll’s books alike.
Fior’s close relationship with the Alice books goes back to his monumental 2012 discovery of a chessboard, never previously known about, hand painted by Sir John Tennial. The writer’s job as a bookseller came into play when before the release of Through a Looking Glass Darkly he found new Tennial illustrations. The sketches were at a book fair, where luckily no other exhibitors had snapped them up. These new pictures will be included in the V&A’s Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition.
Through a Looking Glass Darkly has been produced with the same level of care that Fior has shown to the original text, produced in the UK using traditional binding and printing methods. The book also reflects some of the book’s absurdity with the pages exclusively scented by Roja Dove when Alice enters an apothecary. It is beautiful as a design object to display in your bookcase or on your coffee table. Inspired by his childhood love for Alice’s Wonderland, Fior has succeeded in creating a parallel text in Through a Looking Glass Darkly, wholly itself, which embodies the Alice world.