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Sunday, March 7, 2010

'Alice I have been' by Melanie BENJAMIN

Received from the publisher

Melanie Benjamin’s novel has had a release to coincide with Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. But whereas Burton’s movie spectacular is a retelling of Lewis Carroll’s infamous story, Benjamin’s book is a reimagining of the author, and his littlest muse.

There is something called “The Carroll myth” which has been discussed and dissected by scholars for many years now. The ‘myth’ goes something like this…

Charles Dodgson (pseudonym ‘Lewis Carroll’) was an Oxford mathematician when he met Alice Liddell. Alice’s father, Henry Liddell, was the Dean of Oxford and when Charles met her he was 23 to Alice’s 3. Charles befriended Henry Liddell and became close with the Liddell family. Charles frequently went on picnics with the Liddell children (Alice was the 4th of 10) and would often go rowing with Alice and her older sister, Ina. Charles was known to entertain the children with fantastical stories of mad-hatters and tea parties.
In 1862, when Alice was 10 and Charles 30, she asked him to write down one of his stories – the one about a girl called Alice who fell down a rabbit hole. He did – and in 1865 the story went on to be published as ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

The controversy and crux of the ‘myth’ stems from the interim – June 1863 – when Dodgson had a falling out with the Liddell’s…

Little is known of what caused the rift, and people can only speculate. It is believed that an ‘incident’ occurred sometime between June 27-29, because these are the days that are missing from Dodgson’s diary – they were cut out. Likewise, the Liddell’s never openly spoke of the estrangement – but it is believed (and debated) that Mrs. Liddell thought Charles to be an unfit companion for her 11-year-old daughter. This, of course, leads to rumours of paedophilia – and Dodgson’s innocence is not helped by a collection of photos he took in 1858 featuring a number of young girls. One of those girls is Alice, age 6 at the time – she is staring haughtily at the camera, bare-shouldered and dressed in rags.
It should be noted that Dodgson did reacquaint with the family 6 months later – but their former friendship soon deteriorated and academics are left to speculate as to whether the discord was caused by those mysterious events of June, or Oxford politics at the time…

It is in the ‘between’ that Ms. Benjamin sets ‘Alice I have been’, and with creative license she tells Alice Liddell’s story…

Benjamin has given Alice such a wonderful voice. She is a precocious and proud child, but utterly charming. Dodgson’s photo of 6-year-old Alice Liddell captured a girl with wise eyes and lifted chin – and Benjamin has likewise done a spectacular job of voicing that childish arrogance, mixed with frightening naiveté.
This is not a comfortable story. But it is so intriguing and evokes such a ‘what if’ that you can’t help but read and wonder at how close Benjamin’s imagination comes to the truth of Charles and Alice’s connection. The rumours surrounding Charles Dodgson and his ‘friendships’ with young girls are disturbing and unsettling, but Benjamin refrains from writing in black and white. In Benjamin’s book Charles Dodgson is not a predatory villain – he is a complex mystery, a stuttering mathematician who lives in his head and creates whimsy out of his lonely little life. Likewise, Alice Liddell is not a victimized maiden - she is a precocious child who turns into a wise young woman. Benjamin’s characters are not one-dimensional; she does not confine them to being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, she simply lets their actions speak for themselves and allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

The relationship between Alice and Charles is as much a mystery to our narrator, Alice Liddell herself, as it has become to scholars and researchers. The story is not about any particular ‘incident’ that tarnishes the story of Wonderland; rather it is about Alice Liddell trying to reconcile her past – and try to make sense of what she remembers, the gossip of the time and what really happened.

Surprisingly enough, it is not the relationship between Charles and Alice that is the most captivating thing in ‘Alice I have been’. Instead it is what came after ‘Wonderland’ … her romance with Prince Leopold of England and marriage to Reginald Hargreaves, the death of her son’s during WWI and her widowhood. And throughout all of this, the duel between the woman she grew up to be, and the girl that was immortalized.

Still, what was truly tiresome – what is always truly tiresome- was the disappointment, brief and politely suppressed, evident in all the faces. The disappointment of looking for a little girl, a bright little girl in a starched white pinafore, and finding an old lady instead.
I understand. I myself suffer it each time I consult a looking-glass, only to wonder how the glass can be so cracked and muddled – and then realize, with a pang of despair, that it is not the glass that is deficient, after all.

Ms. Benjamin admits that she wrote ‘Alice I have been’ sticking close to Liddell’s actual timeline – but the woman was a true enigma. There was so much speculation and rumour surrounding her – from her possibly indecent relationship with ‘Lewis Carroll’ to her whispered romance with Prince Leopold. The players are all dead and dust, and what is left behind are rumours and creative license – which Benjamin uses with a flourish.

I could not put this book down, I was suckered right in and had to keep reminding myself that what I was reading was an imagined retelling, a heavy creative license and not complete truth. But Benjamin writes the characters so close to heart, she captures the time so beautifully and spins the rumour so masterfully that I didn’t care if it was fact or fiction – I just had to keep reading and follow her down that rabbit hole….



  1. Great review! I did not know about this myth and I am intrigued. I have to say this is not really the sort of book I'd pick up, but it does sound interesting =)


  2. Wow - what a story. I had never heard of that myth. I like this:

    " Benjamin’s characters are not one-dimensional; she does not confine them to being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, she simply lets their actions speak for themselves and allows readers to draw their own conclusions."

    Very interesting book..excellent review.


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