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.
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.