Title: Alice, I Have Been
Author: Melanie Benjamin
Pub: Delacorte Press Bantam, 2010
Genre: Victorian, Literary Fiction
This is the fictionalized account of Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Whereas many stories are about the man, Mr. Dodgson (Carroll was a pen name), author Benjamin focuses in on Alice, as a young child until her elderly age of eighty-something. It is this journey that makes the novel interesting, observing what happened to young Alice and her fight to separate herself from the Alice in Wonderland.
This will be a rather broken review because the book emotionally turned me upside down. There might have been times I cried, but I’m not sure because I never really felt a part of myself while reading the book. Does that make sense? I mean, it wasn’t in this The NeverEnding Story fantastical aspect where I felt like I was IN the story, but that I was not a part of the story or my world; and instead I lived in limbo.
When I closed the book the following emotions were all felt: unclean, empty, loss, withered, hopeless, wintery days.
Notice none were of peace. I wrestled with Alice’s demons knowing that she was not the fault or source, but that she was also not innocent. Ignorant of what she was capable of, perhaps. But not innocent.
“Days are very mysterious things of course. Sometimes they fly by and other times they seem to last forever, yet they are all exactly twenty-four hours. There’s quite a lot we don’t know about them.” (32)
This is a brilliant quote because it truly captures how I felt reading this novel. There were portions of the book that I sped though while other chapters dragged on to no end. I found it interesting how characters from the story Alice in Wonderland were pictured here in real life.
Mr. Dodgson is a quiet spoken man who attends to the three Liddell girls – Ina, Alice, and Edith. Alice is a bewitching little girl who seems to know well beyond her years that Mr. Dodgson wants her. Ina, the observer, takes all of this in and is quite jealous. As the eldest she would anticipate his attention. Edith, the youngest, is rather ignorant to the tension.
The power struggle between Mr. Dodgson and Alice is often alarming and uncomfortable. We know that he is twenty years her senior. We know that he likes the youth of girls; we know that it is intrinsically wrong. And yet the relationship between Alice and Mr. Dodgson continues. There were passages were I felt like I needed to take a shower because the interactions were so dirty. Without them being seedy, though. Can you understand that? I felt uncomfortable observing Mr. Dodgson’s fascination with Alice of course. But Alice and how she would tease Mr. Dodgson, wow, that was almost even more difficult. Okay, not almost. It was.
“As I searched his face, his lips asked a question, or said my name – either way, the answer was the same; my ears felt hot, full of a sound like the pounding of waves, the roar of a mighty current or a riptide; my eyes were full, too full to see anything but his eyes, his nose, the down on his cheek. // Arms reaching, gracefully; lips moving to seek and give the only answer possible. A man who fancied himself a child and a child who thought she was a woman turned to each other on a hot summer day, mindful of nothing, no one but each other – not even the sister who sat opposite, watching; the sister who sat silently, remembering.” (133)
The Liddell family finally separates Alice and Mr. Dodgson. It took a moment of impropriety that could not be ignored (quote above) to make that decision happen. And I had to ask myself, “really, that long?”. I am not quite sure what the social culture was like in Victorian times when it came to children and alarming relationships with older gentlemen. This one seemed to last a lot longer than what I would expect an intelligent family in the spotlight would allow.
I saw Alice throughout her life struggling with her sense of Self. Who she thought she was, what she thought was real. It is almost as though she spent such a large part of her life filling the shoes of all of these caricatures, desiring acceptance from her audience, she never figured out who she was. And yet, she was not a weak character. I would never describe her as bit. She had the tendency to lash out if she thought she was being “put in the corner” so to speak.
There’s a moment toward the end of the novel when you think that perhaps she has gotten it, perhaps she has found peace with herself. I thought it was rather open-ended, left for us to decide. My emotions leaving this book would say that she didn’t.
I’m very interested in reading about Alice Liddell more. I don’t know how much historical information is out there of hers. (From my understanding many letters were burnt and the author took some liberties with various characters).