Alice Have I Been by Melanie Benjamin

Alice Have I Been by Melanie Benjamin (Random House, December 2010) is a fictionalized historical biography of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the woman who was as a child friends of Charles L. Dodgson (the man who later wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll). It was young Alice Liddell who begged Mr. Dodgson to write down his improvised story of a girl chasing a white rabbit to a fantastic wonderland. And it was a middle-aged Mr. Dodgson who took dozens of photographs of young girls, including Alice Liddell, during the late 1800s.

Was Mr. Dodgson a perverted man? Was Alice his fantasy? Or was it a part of Victorian custom to photograph children in costume as he appeared to have done? Did Alice’s family know of the photograph of Alice as a beggar girl?

Due to destroyed correspondence and our own possible misunderstandings of the era, we may never know for sure. Yet, the mysteries in Alice Liddell Hargreaves’ life seem real in this novel. Her story here is both interesting and emotional.

A fictionalized biography is always a difficult situation. Given the lack of documented evidence, the situation could have been quite different from what Ms Benjamin portrayed. Nevertheless, regardless of what one thinks of Mr. Dodgson, Alice Have I Been is still a fascinating fictionalization.

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Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins (brief thoughts)

Ah, my Wilkie! It is so nice to come back to your familiar voice!

Except no two narrators in Wilkie Collins’ novels have the same voice. It is one of Collins’ masterpieces of talent that he creates unforgettable narrators with personality and voice. His novels are such a delightful comfort read for me because they are so full of life and personality. I love a good Victorian novel, and Wilkie Collins’ sensation novels are a perfect escape.

In Poor Miss Finch, the narrator is Madame Protolungo, a widowed French woman, true to the memory of her Republican husband. She is living in England and as the novel begins, she is beginning new employment as a lady’s companion to a wealthy young woman who happens to be blind. Lucilla Finch is the daughter of the rector of Dimchurch, but due to complicated circumstances she lives independently from her father with her own fortune. When she falls in love with a young man named Oscar and a surgery is discovered that may help her regain her sight, she wants to under go the surgery at any cost so she can see her adored lover. But when Oscar’s identical twin brother Nugent arrives in Dimchurch, Lucilla’s situation is confused with humorous and sensational (of course) results!

Wilkie Collins introduces a number of fascinating and memorable characters in Poor Miss Finch: the conceited Rector, the milky mother (Mrs. Finch) of nearly a dozen youngsters, Madame Prolungo, Herr Grosse the optician, and more. Further, he creates a love triangle and a situation that is page-turning. I’ve been reading lots of more serious nonfiction lately, so reading a book full of sensational characters, situations, and exaggerations was just what I needed. Although I could look at it more deeply (think of the significance of Dimchurch versus the seaside in terms of Lucilla’s vision, for one obvious example), I chose to read this just for fun. And it was!

Poor Miss Finch, while possibly not as complex as Armadale or The Woman in White, is still a Wilkie Collins classic with delightful characters and a fun plot. I am glad I read it this fall!

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

When the confident orphaned young American woman at the center of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (published 1881) receives a fortune, it seems she will be able to live her dream life of happiness. Yet, James’ portrait of Isabel Archer’s character, emotional development, and her choices is a complex one. As a relatively independent woman, Isabel is still restricted by the social and cultural restraints of being a woman in the mid-nineteenth century. As with my read of The Mill on the Floss (discussed last week), The Portrait of a Lady annoyed me because of the limited perspective Isabel Archer was able to embrace as a woman, and her story in general frustrated me because of what did and did not happen based on Isabel’s perceived “duty” as a woman.

Although I try to avoid spoilers below, there may be some thematic discussion that could “spoil” the novel for the particular reader.Continue Reading

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Maggie Tulliver is a quick-witted child, one with appalling manners for her strict Victorian house and community. She cannot seem to be a proper young lady. When the novel opens, she is about nine years old, and I couldn’t help adoring her childish antics, especially as she regularly brought disappointment to her mother and aunts with her lack of girlish charm. From my perspective, who wouldn’t love a girl who is so determined to read, to learn, and to be all the imaginative things she desires?

Unfortunately for Maggie, her life in small-town Victorian village does not allow for women that are different from the norm. Her story, as told in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), was both frustrating and emotional for me to read, because as Maggie herself desired, I wanted so much more for her.Continue Reading