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.
The Alice of this book was a spunky, energetic child who sought for freedom from the confines of the rigid Victorian childhood she held as second daughter of Oxford’s Dean. The eccentric and shy mathematics professor, Mr. Dodgson, was full of creative stories, spontaneity, and sincere friendship for the Liddell girls, and in this story, Alice is always the favorite. I loved the unfolding of the riverboat scene, in which Mr. Dodgson tells the Alice story for the first time, and I enjoyed seeing how an out-of-stereotype person may have given joy to the young children possibly stifled by the structure of the era.
Much of the story is built on speculation, of course. Yet, I loved the dramatic scenes between Alice and Prince Leopold. The poignant disappointment and loneliness Alice experienced in the novel, albeit probably completely unrealistic, made this a moving read for me. As an elderly Mrs. Hargreaves was the narrator and the majority of the book was recollections, I could not be help and reflect on my own life and wonder how I will look back on certain experiences of my childhood.
I really enjoyed the perspective in this book. I’ve always enjoyed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so when I first heard of the questions surrounding Mr. Dodgson in regards to his photography and the “relationship” with Alice Liddell, I wondered. The questions we may have about Mr. Dodgson still remain, but this book gave a probable look at what may have happened.
It especially address how it much have felt to be the elderly woman who once was a creative child named Alice. What a childhood burden it may have been!