Monday, July 16, 2012

What I'm Reading: Alice I Have Been

I don't think I've ever given much thought to the origins of Alice in Wonderland. Of course, I was read the story as a child and I've seen the Johnny Depp version in 3D, but I suppose I always assumed that it was the seed of a story in an author's imagination, that grew into a children's classic. And considering all of the odd characters introduced throughout (as well as the instructions to "eat me" and "drink me"), I also assumed that Lewis Carroll was in some kind of drug-altered state when he wrote it.

Alice I Have Been is author Melanie Benjamin's account, based on months of research, of how the story came to be. Let's begin with Lewis Carroll, which is actually a pseudonym for Charles Dodgson, who was an Oxford mathematician and professor. He was also neighbors with Alice Liddell (the original Alice in Wonderland) and her family of 2 older sisters, 1 older brother, mother, father (the Dean of the college), and governess Miss Prickett (and later a 3rd sister). Dodgson dabbled in the new art of photography, which required the subject to hold the pose for 45 seconds while the image was taken. Dodgson found endless delight in capturing the girls' images and their mother, intrigued by the new art, was happy to let him do it. In the world we know today, I don't know any mother who would let her 3 young daughters (and later, Alice alone) spend countless hours with a 30-year old man, photographing, boating, exploring, and picnicking around the Oxford countryside. Sometimes the governess was with them (as she had a bit of a crush on the ole Dodgson), but sometimes not. It was, occasionally, just the 4 of them.

Eventually, tired of grim-faced portraits, Dodgson took this picture of Alice alone. He arranged for her to meet him in a tucked-away garden and brought these garments for her to wear. It is the inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland and would, much later, incite rumors about the relationship between Alice and Dodgson.

It seems fairly provocative to us now, especially considering that he brought these clothes for her to wear and then watched as she changed into them. But in Benjamin's post-scripts, she writes about how difficult it is for us to read a book about an earlier era without reading it through the lens of our modern times. She also admits that when she first discovered the photography of Dodgson at the Art Institute, and saw this one among the others, she was, at the very least, disturbed. But then she reminds us of the novelty of photography during the Victorian ages, especially of people, since most of it was landscape photography at that time. Dodgson was especially gifted at telling stories, drawing pictures, and then rushing to expose the plate...keeping his young subjects enthralled (and above all, still) for the entire 45 seconds. It helps to remember that the Victorians also embraced a sort of "cult of the child," which Benjamins explains is the "idea that children's unformed bodies reflected the purest, most idealistic representation of humanity. It was entirely possible for a Victorian to look at a child scantily clad and see an angel, not a sexualized creature..."

However, be that as it may, there was a rumored relationship between Alice and Dodgson when she was about 11 and he in his 30's. There is no proof to back this up, as all correspondance between the two, as well as Dodgson's diaries were burned by the families, supposedly to conceal any embarrassing details. Benjamin does her best to describe the relationship and leaving it to us to assume (as we are all so good at doing), just as the rest of the world assumes even to this day...or, at least, wonders. But there is documentation that sometime in Alice's pre-teen years, contact with Dodgon was completely severed and Alice went on to fall in love with Queen Victoria's hemophiliac son, Prince Leopold (and he with her), but marry someone who was more in line with her social status.

The facts we have, and which Benjamin solidly bases her novel on, are:

Dodgson told the Liddell sisters many stories over the years of their intense friendship, but the one he told of Alice in Wonderland during a day of boating was the only one that Alice begged him to write down. Alice was 10 at the time.

Dodgson first came to know the Liddell Family when Mr. Liddell was appointed dean of Christ Church, Oxford and the family moved into the Deanery. Dodgson, who lived immediately across the garden from the Deanery, first photographed the garden and came to know the oldest son, Henry, but soon developed a friendship with the daughters and spent the majority of his time with them.

At the age of 11, all ties were severed with Mr. Dodgson, although the "why" is a matter of complete speculation. One rumor is that Mr. Dodgson asked Mr. Liddell for Alice's hand in marriage. Yet another theory is that Dodgson had professed his love to either Alice's mother, her older sister Ina, or their governess. Dodgson's descendents dispute all claims, but we'll never know as Alice's mother burned all correspondance between Alice and Dodgson after the break.

Dodgson went on to become the infamous Lewis Carroll, first publishing Alice in Wonderland and later Through the Looking Glass. He and Alice continued to have little to no contact, although he always sent her an edition of his newest book. Alice spent most of her life trying desperately to conceal her identity as the true Alice in Wonderland, but it was her most appealing trait. Prince Leopold fell in love with that Alice, although he went on to marry someone else. And Alice eventually settled down to a life of solitude with Reginald Hargreaves and they had 3 sons.

The book is mostly narrated by an 80-year old Alice, as she is crossing the ocean from England to New York so that she may appear at a function as the original Alice in Wonderland. Towards the end of her life, she finally accepted (and even embraced) her legacy and was able to capitalize on it financially after her husband died, leaving her virtually penniless. But she never spoke of her break with Mr. Dodgson or revealed any enlightening circumstances that surrounded that event.

I truly loved this book for its mystery, its conflict, its history, and the way it made me feel. Although Melanie Benjamin has been accused in some of the critics' reviews for "dumbing down" Alice's 7-year old speech, I found it to be accurate in how most 7-year olds express themselves. And her bitter disappointment at the way her life turned out was compelling and sad. I could sit here and judge Mr. Dodgson for the relationship that he supposedly allowed with Alice, but when I was about 15 or 16, I carried on with a much older man briefly and I can certainly see the appeal. What young girl doesn't want to be idolized by someone so much older and wiser? And just like the Liddells, my family stepped in and put an abrupt end to it.

It's hard not to feel sympathy or sadness for Alice as she recounts the overstuffed atmosphere of the Liddell household and her sisters' shifting demands for attention from Dodgson. And it's nearly impossible to feel anything but hatred at her mother for severing the relationship and sentencing Alice to a life of loneliness. But we have to remember that she did the best she could with the notariety that was thrown upon her. Not everyone is so lucky. The inspiration behind A.A. Milne's Christopher Robin went on to commit suicide as he caved under the pressure of being Pooh's best friend. Alice made a life for herself that eventually included her role as Alice in Wonderland.


  1. I must admit that it would be difficult to set aside the modern lens, as you said. But I do think the story would be fascinating. I also had a wee bit of a dalliance when I was 16 with an older man, and I often was infatuated with male bosses at work during those years so I understand how it could happen.

    Sounds like one I ought to pick up.

  2. This looks fascinating! I love behind the scenes books like this. I need to fire up the kindle and see if I can download it.


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