Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin is an historical novel, the imagined life of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who was told the story of Alice in Wonderland as a child by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), an Oxford mathematics professor.
The novel starts with Alice as an elderly woman. Alice is tired of always being Alice in Wonderland, and of sharing her memories of childhood and the author with fans of the stories. Alice feels as if those who fete her are disappointed to realise she is a real person with a real life, rather than a little girl frozen in time.
As a child, Alice’s father was the Dean of Christ Church at the University of Oxford and her mother, a socially ambitious woman who ruled the household. Alice was one of ten children, but for the purposes of this novel, only her older sister Ina and younger sister Edith feature prominently during her childhood, along with their governess, Miss Prickett (Pricks).
Mr Dodgson was a family friend. His preference was to spend time with the children, regularly photographing the girls, telling them stories while taking them for walks, rowing or on picnics, accompanied by Pricks and occasionally by other adult men from the University teaching staff. Alice is aware that Mr Dodgson enjoys her company most of all, although she and Ina vie jealously for his attention. Alice is also aware that Pricks has romantic feelings towards Mr Dodgson and she laughs and makes fun of her governess’s hopes.
Mr Dodgson very often used Alive and her sisters as models for his photography. The front piece of this Alice I Have Been is a photograph of Alice taken by Charles Dodgson, who posed her provocatively as a gypsy child. The book and this photograph particularly, interested me enough to Google Charles Dodgson’s photography. He was a prolific photographer of young girls (aged between seven and twelve years old) and very often the girl’s poses are provocative. Alice I Have Been stops short of accusing Mr Dodgson of being a paedophile, but the question is certainly raised.
The book describes the circumstances of Charles Dodgson telling Alice and her sisters the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and of Alice begging Mr Dodgson to write the story down, which he eventually did. He also gave the original manuscript to Alice. The story was published and was eventually followed by Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
The relationship between Alice, her sisters and Mr Dodgson ended after Alice, waking up on a train after an outing with Mr Dodgson, kissed him in the way her “Papa kissed her Mamma”. This was witnessed by Ina and Pricks, and the blame laid entirely with Mr Dodgson.
As an adult, Alice went on to have a romance with His Royal Highness Prince Leopold, the son of Queen Victoria, which ended at the Queen’s request. Alice believes this is because of her reputation having been stained by Mr Dodgson, but the official reason given is that the Queen wanted the Prince to marry royalty.
Alice eventually married and had children of her own, recognising all the while that she still loved and always would love the prince best of all.
Towards the end of the novel Alice and Mr Dodgson meet up again. He is a fussy old man by this stage, while she is the mother of rambunctious boys. Both are disappointed in each other. Mr Dodgson wants Alice to continue to be a child, and Alice wants Mr Dodgson to grow up.
I enjoyed Alice I Have Been, even though as I child I read and disliked Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.