“You remind me of Alice.”
It was a thoughtful remark coming at the conclusion of a long chat with a wonderful tutor about all sorts of things: spinal surgery, publishing, clothes choices, Virginia Woolf. I still love how Alice is the kind of name that requires little context, no extra words needed to identify who’s being referenced. There’s only the one, wandering (and wondering) her way through a strange land.
I also love how, during this particular conversation, Alice became a sort of shorthand for oddness and inquisitiveness, as well as some pretty rapid shifts in size... I mean, as I take great, great pleasure in telling people I’ve just met, I did once grow 2.5 inches in five-ish hours. Thanks spinal surgery! (Spoiler alert: Alice does actually figure in my book. I’ve long thought about what an apt analogy she is for physical metamorphosis).
Rapid growth and shrinkage aside, I want to pick up on this idea of Alice symbolizing a kind of oddness. Alongside that delicious vision of blue-skirted curiosity (though as any Alice aficionado would point out, such imagery is largely Disney-influenced), she also represents a distinct sense of what, for lack of something more succinct, I’m going to call out-of-place-ness. I’ve been lingering on the idea of place a lot recently: about how we fit in, stand out, take up space, stand apart, feel comfortable in our surroundings, or visibly, uncomfortably stick out.
When I was at secondary school I spent plenty of time feeling like the odd one out. I worried that I was too tall, too interested in learning, too exasperated by the flashing, shrieking carousel of social games and shifts in hierarchy. Curious phrase isn't it? To be ‘odd’ is to automatically be ‘out’ – to stand on the edges of things, looking in. It reminds me of Woolf writing in her diary about those who “secrete an envelope which connects them and protects them from others, like myself, who am outside the envelope, foreign bodies.” Ironically she was talking about clothes – somewhere I’ve (nearly-ish) always felt at home. As I wrote earlier today for World Book Day’s Teenfest though, “in my teens I located the way I liked to dress pretty easily. Building up the attitude to match took longer.” That was where I struggled, torn between my own joy in vintage dresses, versus the ‘oddness’ I might be labeled with for openly wearing what I wanted.
Basically, Alice was the odd one out because she was a girl exploring a land of mad hatters and talking flowers (and, in the follow-up, strangely porous mirrors). I fell oddly outside of the expected rites of passage for teenagers, keen to go my own way – and certainly doing so online, and elsewhere – but still feeling the weight of ‘fitting in’ too. It took several years to let that dissolve, giving me room to acquire proper confidence in my own independence.
Maybe I’m projecting all sorts of things onto Alice that, actually, have little to do with her. Alice is kind of perfect for projection though. I saw the beautiful exhibition in the British Library recently, idling around the gorgeous illustrations and editions before dipping into the manuscripts room to pay homage to Jane Austen and Angela Carter. Alice appears in so many guises and formats and appearances, continually in flux, reinterpreted afresh for each new age.
Alice has featured on this blog before too (see here and here, indeed my blog header is still a cropped image taken from that very 2010 shoot, complete with crochet apron), and I’ve grappled with what she represents several times. At the heart of it all, I remain compelled by the image of a young woman exploring a world so utterly surreal. I find this world of ours surreal (increasingly so, in some ways), but, for now, I’ve found my place within it. These days I think the most important bit of Alice isn’t the oddness, necessarily. Instead it’s the sense of wonder.
Given that it’s World Book Day, I’m making like my primary school self and presenting a rough approximation of me dressed up as a favourite character. No prizes for guessing who! This Alice is self-determined and sprightly, complete with trusty wellies to scale windy hills (and by windy, I really mean ear-biting, hair-whipping, finger-numbing blasts that we worried might make us airborne). The photos were taken over the Christmas holidays by my dad, and the dress was bought for a few pounds from a charity shop years ago. The belt was my grandma’s.