Melanie Benjamin – Alice I Have Been
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Started: 26 December 2009
Finished: 27 December 2009
Alice I Have Been will be published by Random House on 12 January 2010. You can pre-order your copy here.
Where did it come from? From the publisher.
Why do I have it? Saw the ad on Shelf Awareness and thought it looked interesting.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 September 2009.
The thing about life
stuck in a childhood daydream:
what if you grow up?
I had wanted to live forever as a gypsy girl; I had wanted to live forever as a child, tumbling down a rabbit hole. I had been granted both wishes, only to find immortality was not what it had promised to be; instead of a passport to the future, it was a yoke that bound me to the past. – p. 168-9.
Summary: In 1859, Alice Liddell was a 7-year-old girl, the middle daughter of the dean of Oxford University; Charles Dodgson was an eccentric math professor who would amuse Alice and her sisters by making up stories. Today, he’s better known as Lewis Carroll, and she’s the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Alice I Have Been is told from the perspective of an 80-year-old Alice as she looks back over her life: the simple joys, great tragedy, and complex scandal that left their marks on her childhood; her romance with a prince; her unfulfilling marriage to another man; the sons she loved – and lost; and in the center of it all, the book, and her permanent role in literary history. As a girl, she dreamed of immortality and escape, only to find out as she grew up that both of those things have their costs, and that neither was quite what she’d dreamed of.
Review: I knew the basic facts of Alice Liddell’s post-childhood life (love affair with Prince Leopold, marriage to Reginald Hargreaves, three children, etc.) before I read this book – facts I’d garnered mostly from the young-adult fantasy novel The Looking Glass Wars. What I hadn’t known, however, was the story of Alice and Dodgson at Oxford. While there is not a huge amount of documentation of the critical events of the time – Alice’s family burned her letters, and the relevant pages were torn from Dodgson’s diary – Benjamin weaves a compelling story around the pieces that we do know: most critically, a provocative and disturbing photograph of Alice as a young girl.
The story, as Benjamin tells it, is not at all sexualized or about seduction – Alice is a little flirtatious, and trying to be older than she is, but is mostly still innocent. Dodgson is creepy, and inappropriate at times, but he didn’t really seem aggressively creepy – I didn’t ever think that he was actually a danger to her. However, the whole first half of the book was so perfused with the idea of pedophilia that it was just thoroughly unsettling, to a degree where I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed reading it. That’s not to knock Ms. Benjamin’s skill; indeed, I think it’s to her credit that a first novel could make me feel something so powerfully. Still, it makes it hard to say that I actually *liked* the book.
Overall, the book was very well done. The tone and dialogue reek of Victoriana without ever becoming stilted, ponderous or hard to read. Benjamin does an excellent job of bringing historical people and events to life, and of filling in the details, motivations, and inner lives while staying true to the facts. The themes of identity and immortality are interesting, and Alice Liddell is an excellent character to use to explore them, although I felt like at times there was a bit too much telling vs. showing, having Alice explain conclusions that the readers should have been allowed to draw for themselves.
So, while I can’t say that I exactly enjoyed reading this (at least the first half; the second half was more enjoyable), it was definitely absorbing, with a fascinating story told well. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Alice I Have Been should be on the list of folks who like literary history, historical fiction, or Victorian novels.
First Line: But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.
Cover Thoughts: The photograph is interesting, but what I really love is the title treatment – the little drawing of Alice from the frontispiece of the book, and the white rabbit with the photo and the Victorian border, all give a very good sense of the book.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 185: “The few tables were uncluttered, their surfaces bare, not coered with fussy doilies; the backs of chairs were bereft of antimacassars.” – a small covering, usually ornamental, placed on the backs and arms of upholstered furniture to prevent wear or soiling.
- p. 220: ““You look lovely – that rose tulle over the tarlatan is perfection!”” – a thin, plain-weave, open-mesh cotton fabric finished with stiffening agents and sometimes glazed.
- p. 260: “I cannot deny that I gloated a bit when I showed her the two stories of pale stone, the balcony running along the upper floor; the huge orangery, impressively wide staircase, billiard room, library, and cavernous dining room; the drawing room decorated with a frieze of peacocks painted by an Italian artist.” – a warm place, as a greenhouse, in which orange trees are cultivated in cool climates.
**All quotes come from an advance edition and may not reflect the final published text.**