Monday, March 01, 2010

Book 50: Alice I Have Been

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

I have never read Alice in Wonderland and while I understand most of the pop culture references to the movie, I don't recall much of it beyond random clips which are probably just from seeing random clips in documentaries or best of lists rather than watching the film as a whole. In fact, I think I only watched the Disney movie once, when I was about three or four and it scared me and made me cry. Or maybe that was The Wizard of Oz. My parents would have to confirm that one. Basically, I don't have much of an attachment to Charles Dogson/Lewis Carroll or the classic story, but Bibliolatrist gave this novel such as glowing review that it stuck in my head, and I bought it with little hesitation when I saw it at Barnes and Noble despite the fact that it was a hardcover and I'm cheap. Well not really, but I need to be.

Alice I Have Been is a fictional biography of Alice Liddell, the woman that inspired Alice in Wonderland. Or maybe she didn't, the jury still seems to be out on that one, but it was dedicated to her. As a young girl, she lived at Oxford with her family since her father was a dean, and in this time the family cultivated a friendship with Charles Dodgson, the man who used Lewis Carroll as a pen name (I didn't know that wasn't his real name until reading this). Her family's standing at Oxford actually gave Alice and her sisters a chance to interact with a variety of celebrities of those days (the novel is divided into three parts and spans from the 1860s through to the 1920s), including the Queen, a few of her sons that were students, and author John Ruskin.

Benjamin explains in her afterword that there are a lot of gaps in the historical record so many of the specifics of which she writes are her invention or best guess but it is unsure what actually happened. Dodgson's family members destroyed several of his journals after his death, but there was a definite break in the relationship between the Liddell family and Dodgson in 1863 when Alice was 11. Later in her life, she and her family also became close to Prince Leopold but there is debate as to which sister the prince was interested in - some suggest her younger sister Edith but he named his first daughter Alice, so it seems either way could possibly be supported.

While Benjamin may be working with murky details, the story she tells rings true and the characters seem real. As the different sections of the novel progress, Alice matures from a wild and defiant little girl, to a young woman in love that has been left behind by her peer group and is close to being considered in spinster territory, to an old woman that is very stiff and proper, exactly the kind of person she seemed to be fighting against as a young girl. And for much of the novel, her legacy as the little girl Alice haunts her - even if the character is not modeled on her, she is the one that urged Dodgson to write the story down and since the character is named Alice, she is associated with the novel by the general public.

Whatever it is that caused the break between her family and Dodgson continues to define her existence long after, and even when she and the Prince are in love and courting, she knows/fears that part of his interest in her initially began because he saw her as Alice in Wonderland rather than just Alice. As she later states, there is only one person that ever saw her as simply herself.

Given the friendship that developed between Alice and Charles in the first section, it was rather odd to read this after/in conjunction with Lolita. After all, she was a seven year old who was spending a lot of time with a man twenty years her senior. Even though I have never read Alice in Wonderland, I was a bit worried about having that story ruined for me by finding out the author was a pedophile (according to Wikipedia one theory about Dodgson was that he was a celibate pedophile which I could deal with but if he actually acted on these potential impulses, it would definitely put things in a different perspective).

While Alice had a long life with many experiences, a loving husband and three children, overall, the novel just struck me as very sad, and not just for Alice. There were many lost opportunities, and family deaths. I liked the novel a lot, but it made me feel very bad about what happened to Dodgson (he may have been happy, but in the novel he seems to end up alone, which once again, may be what he wanted). Alice's life was defined by that one summer since it affected people's reactions to her for much longer than it should have, and it caused her regrets later in life. Additionally, she couldn't always appreciate what she had until much later - in some cases, it wasn't too late to make amends, but she could have been happier if she had come to certain realizations earlier in life.

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