Alice I Have Been
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". . .an enchanted walk along the pathways of a real wonderland of people and places. . ."
Alice I Have Been: A trip down the rabbit hole in the company of an eminently real and utterly fascinating Alice.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson taught mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. He wrote stories, poems and nonsense riddles for children, but one little girl begged Dodgson to write a story he told her one summer afternoon while rowing on the Isis River. Her name was Alice Liddell, second daughter of the Dean of Christ Church.
Alice was unlike her sisters, Ina and Edith, but not just because they had fair, curly hair and hers was black and straight as silken fringe. Dodgson told Alice she was an old soul, and their friendship was the source of much comment and commentary because of the vast difference in their ages—twenty years. It is this relationship and the murky depths surrounding Dodgson and Alice that Melanie Benjamin seeks to illuminate in Alice I Have Been.
Mixing fact with fiction, and taking a few liberties with timing and relationships, Benjamin writes a plausible and believable tale from Alice’s point of view. Told from the distance of mature middle age, Alice recounts her relationship with Dodgson and with her family and governess. Alice is a restless and outspoken child who doesn’t quite fit in with the placid Victorian image of an upper class family. She is always getting dirty or tearing her clothes and seldom sits still even when Dodgson photographs her and her sisters.
This is Alice’s story. What is immediately apparent about Alice is that she is unflinchingly honest and forthright except when it comes to what caused the very public breach between Dodgson and her family, a breach that set tongues wagging and people talking all over Oxford. Even Alice doesn’t remember how it happened, and it is this curious lack of memory that crops up repeatedly throughout Alice I Have Been. How could she not know? She was there.
Benjamin dangles bits and bubbles of half memory, leaving more questions than answers, like half-glimpsed pebbles along a dark forest path. Alice’s curiosity at first seems like a coquette’s lure and then becomes frustrating as the incident is referred to over and over and never fully seen on first reading. It is a testament to Benjamin’s artful prose and intricately drawn characters that I didn’t give up and quit reading.
Alice I Have Been is tantalizing and frustrating, magical and solidly of this world due to Benjamin’s deft handling of the fictional and factual elements of Alice Liddell Hargreaves’ tale. This is no trip down the rabbit hole but an enchanted walk along the pathways of a real wonderland of people and places that will not be easily or quickly forgotten.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell