Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

17 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

Alice I Have Been is a fictional account of the life of Alice Liddell, the real little girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland.

Benjamin has taken some liberties with the life of Alice Liddell, but the major events — births, marriages, deaths, friendships, controversies — are historically accurate, and Benjamin brings them to us in a compelling narrative. At the crux of the story is the poignant irony of being Alice in Wonderland forced to live in the real world.

I’d classify this book at the smart end of beach reads. It’s not heavy literature. It’s not terribly challenging, but it is still a respectable read that is informative and illuminating.

One thing that I didn’t know before I read Alice I Have Been is that there were rumors at the time of an inappropriate interest in young girls on the part of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. When I reached this point in Benjamin’s book, I was prepared to be annoyed if this was something she extrapolated for fictitious purposes, so I looked it up. As is so often the case, there was never any real proof that Dodgson’s interest in Alice was inappropriate in any way, but there were rumors to suggest it in Oxford at the time, and he did have a falling out with her family when she was about 11-years-old.

Nonetheless, Benjamin handles the issue with sensitivity, neither over-sensationalizing it, nor dismissing it. She also writes a story that is about Alice, not about Lewis Carroll.

We get the story of how Alice begs to have her story written down, but we also get the impact of the fame it brings her on her later life. She is a girl who goes on to fall in love, to marry someone other than the man she first loves, to have three children, two of whom are killed in World War I. Through it all, she is still Alice in Wonderland to the world.

It is hardly surprising then that she writes to her son later in life, “But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.”

These are the opening lines of the book. They are also from a real letter than Alice Liddell Hargreaves wrote to her son Caryl in the last years of her life.

Benjamin offers us a lovely blend of biography and fiction. We get a glimpse into a privileged class in Victorian English and another glimpse into what becomes of the privilege in the face of World War I. We feel the losses of a girl who just wanted her own story.

Melanie Benjamin has a new book set to be released later this year, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. It is already on my wish list.

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