Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

When my dad gave eight-year old me a red leather copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I treasured the beautiful book both for its physical appearance and for its fantastical story. As I grew older and visited Wonderland again in a kiddie lit class in college, I learned a bit about the story behind the story. Alice Liddell. The girl for whom Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland. The waif in many of the decidedly un-Victorian photographs that Charles Dodgson took. A hint of impropriety. And really that is the sum total of what I knew about "the real Alice" before I started Benjamin's fascinating novelization.

Opening with an aged Alice, immediately after the sale of her original manuscript, reflecting on her life as the inspiration for the famous nursery tale. How it has been tiring to be the object of such speculation. From thence, traveling back in time, Alice narrates her life starting with her early childhood in Oxford where her family was intimately acquainted with mathematics teacher Charles Dodgson. Alice's childhood and relationship with Dodgson are drawn in shimmering, sympathetic detail. The friendship between the adult Dodgson and the child Alice starts off innocently but eventually becomes fraught and captured through innuendo, causing a shiver of distaste, worry, or foreboding to travel down the reader's spine. The break between the Liddells and Dodgson comes without explicitly speculating on the reason behind it but suggesting, as the rumors of the day did, that there was ultimately an inappropriateness to Dodgson's relationship with Alice.

Whatever the cause, Alice Liddell did not forever remain the child Dodgson immortalized but indeed grew up and lived out a life that was certainly not the stuff of fairy tales. Benjamin chronicles Alice's adult life, the disappointments and losses as well as the late dawning realization of love and what it has meant to her to be, her whole life, "that Alice."

Using what is known for certain about Alice's life and adding in reasonable speculation, Benjamin has created a nuanced and beautifully written story. Alice is a sympathetic character. Dodgson comes off as somehow both innocent and lecherous. And the tale as a whole is not only readable but fascinatingly addictive. Having Alice narrate her own life gives a poignancy, bittersweetness, and retrospective feel to the novel as it retains the Victorian sensibility that was likely a cornerstone of the real Alice Liddell's entire life. Beautifully rendered, if you've ever wondered about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, wondered what life was like on this side of the looking glass, this is the book for you.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. this sounds perfect, and I like to think I'm an Alice-in-Wonderland fan, so this one is a must, yes?
    thanks for this!

  2. this sounds great. and as an Alice-in-Wonderland fan, this is a must-read, non?


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