Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Nearly all of us have read Alice in Wonderland and most of us know it was based on a real little girl. Some of us wonder what happened to her when she grew up and Benjamin’s book is one of many to address that question.
Not very well, I’m afraid.
Instead of exploring Alice Liddell’s life as an adult with children of her own, the author chooses to rehash the interactions with CD, who wrote under the name of Lewis Carroll. Not only does she cover this familiar ground, but she fills it with endless insinuations that are never really answered. In short, she is as coy as she accuses her subject of being.
Alice’s father was a Dean at Oxford, where she and her sisters grew up surrounded by male students and teachers, who were supposed to be single and celibate. Charles Dodgson was a shy, stammering math professor who became especially friendly with the Liddells. Dodgson was considered an adjunct babysitter by the parents and a target of fierce rivalry among the single females, from the plain nanny to Ina, Alice’s older and more glamorous sister.
This novel was inspired by the author visiting an exhibit of Charles Dodgson’s photographs at a museum and seeing the “gypsy girl” portrait of Liddell. She said“It was a picture of a child clad in scanty rags, showing just enough skin to make me uncomfortable. But it was the eyes that haunted me; dark, glittering, they were wise, worldly, almost defiant. They were the eyes of a woman.” This photo is reproduced in the book and I must say that I didn’t see anything “womanly” in it. To me it looks like a tired child hoping to please the photographer.
How can a 7 year old have a “worldly” look, especially in those times when many women went to the marriage bed not knowing anything at all about sex? Perhaps a farm girl or one living in a crowded tenement might have more of an idea, but Alice came from an upper class household.
So what is the author saying? That Alice lead Dodgson on? Or that she was experienced because Dodgson had molested her? Or that she had teleported to the future and gotten tips from Hannah Montana?
Much is made of the break in friendship between Dodgson and the Liddells when Alice was nearly 11.The author continually mentions it and when her interpretation of what caused it is finally revealed, it’s hard to see the reason for such a drastic reaction by the family. We will never know the truth, as all reference from this period was removed from Dodgson’s diary and everyone else involved remained silent. As if the author’s constant reference to the break wasn’t enough to annoy, she also has some weird encounters between Alice and Ruskin, who also taught at Oxford, in scenes so melodramatic they made me grimace.
Benjamin is good at setting the stage and a mood, but needed to untangle the story progress and restrain herself from those soap opera tendencies. And I’m still left wanting to know more about Alice’s life as an adult, beyond the brief sketches given, I wish the author kept closer to her original premise. It seems a missed opportunity.

Delacorte Press 2009 351 pp. ISBN 978-0-385-34413-5

Jackie has liked Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories since she was little, especially all of the unusual animals in them.

6 comments on “Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

  1. annebrooke
    March 22, 2010

    Oh dear, sounds like a missed opportunity for sure, Jackie …


  2. Naomi
    March 22, 2010

    I was also very disapointed in the novel. The wonderful thing about historical fiction is that you have license to make up facts!

  3. Nikki
    March 22, 2010

    The thing that really troubles me about this sort of fiction is that dark things that tend to be implied. Given that there is no way to prove anything because, as you said, CD removed the pages that cover that period from his diary, I feel uncomfortable with summising things that can’t be proved.

  4. RosyB
    March 24, 2010

    “Or that she had teleported to the future and gotten tips from Hannah Montana?” This made me honk out loud, Jackie!

    I suppose the thing about some mysterious events in the past that everyone is interested in is that an author can get a lot of interest by going to that territory but then – basically – the audience is partly interested because they want the answer – which presumably can’t be given. So books that use those kinds of hooks can ultimately end up frustrating the reader even more.

    I think this subject-matter could be really interesting…but you have to ask why it’s being used and to say what exactly?

  5. Contrariwise
    March 25, 2010

    Our blog discusses this book, including the question of how responsible it is to imply allegations against dead real people:

    and our website gives more up to date info on the ‘missing page’ and what probably lay behind it – nothing to do with Alice.

  6. Jackie
    March 27, 2010

    Thanks for those links, I’m going to check them out!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)