Melanie Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been

Poor Alice!

Alice Liddell (later Hargreaves after she married) lived to 82, well into the twentieth century. Yet for many people who did not know her, her life was defined by one golden afternoon picnicking on the river, during which she and her sisters were told a tale of a little girl who followed a waistcoated rabbit down a bottomless rabbit hole, her life preserved forever in the symbolic amber of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (It may not even have been all that nice a day!)

Would you appreciate that unbreakable association? Imagine being forever associated with that child self, without any acknowledgement of the intervening decades; complete strangers would merely gaze perplexed, unable to reconcile the mature and even elderly woman before them with their image of “Alice”, inextricably tied to that long vanished child without any concession to or recognition of the time that has passed since then, the lifetime that has been lived, relationships, children grown to adulthood, achievements…no. I didn’t think so. Neither would I. There’s a touching scene at the end of Alice I Have Been where Alice Hargreaves meets Peter Llewellyn-Davies1; they both instantly recognize the wary expression that the other wears, wondering “Will this person also make all those same wearisome assumptions equating me with that fictional child?” Melanie Benjamin captures Hargreave’s increasing reluctance to be associated with that ephemeral child self, seeing that the fictional Alice is a phantom in any case, with little connection to her current reality; indeed, that attitude makes sense of Hargreave’s decision to sell her handwritten draft of “Alice” in order to save the estate where she made her home with her husband for so many years.

The book’s been reviewed elsewhere, hopefully, I’ll be able to add something? Alice I Have Been is split approximately into thirds: her childhood and friendship with Charles Dodgson while her parents lived in the Deanery in/on Oxford College campus, her young womanhood and her romance with Crown Prince Leopold, and lastly the period which was the majority of her life–her marriage to Reginald Hargreaves and raising her three sons…two of whom died in World War I. It’s a nice balance, though I would have liked to learn more of her married life; at least Benjamin continues Alice’s life long beyond that one day frozen in literary time.

Certainly, Alice I Have Been breaks no ground from a literary analysis perspective. Finding subtext in Dodgson’s photographs is nothing new, nor is conjecture on what Dodgson and Alice did with one another when no one was looking.This is a first novel, and therefore the description tends to the purple2 and there are a few stilted bits of dialogue. Overall, though, if you have ever wondered just what did become of Alice Liddell after “Alice” was told and over but didn’t have the motivation for Literary Analysis of Primary Sources…this faux memoir novel is a wonderful read. It is a work of fiction, though so far as I can tell, Benjamin did stick reasonably close to the truth with a few divergences into conjecture to further the story. For example, no one’s sure why Dodgson and the Liddells broke off contact with one another when Alice was a tween, nor is it clear whether Crown Prince Leopold was courting Alice or her younger sister Edith, and not least it’s not clear whether Dodgson preferred adult relationships with mature women in addition to his friendships with prepubescent girls. (or rather, the theories on either side of the debates seem equally plausible to non-participants.)

I suppose the thing to keep in mind about all the debates is that societal definitions of “scandalous” change from generation to generation, just as surely as styles do. Benjamin has Alice say, referring to her husband’s methods of making up to her after his affairs: “Regi’s tastes [in jewelry] tended to the gaudy, unfortunately–he once gave me a turquoise ring; imagine! Mr. Solomon soon learned to steer him toward more understated gems, such as amethyst and emerald.” It’s not entirely clear in Benjamin’s text whether Alice was more upset about the affairs or the turquoise!

1one of the children upon whom James Barrie almost certainly based Peter Pan
2but then we are talking about the Victorian era. Have you ever seen a proper late Victorian parlor?


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