Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
Alice Pleasance Liddell was the daughter of Dean and Mrs. Liddell. She and her three sisters were the veritable princesses of Oxford in the mid-1800s. Young girls were a bit of an oddity at Oxford at that time, students and faculty were all male. This is not to say that the girls never had anyone to socialize with. On the contrary, they spent a good deal of time with Mr. Charles Dodgeson, a mathematics professor who had published a few stories under the name Lewis Carroll.
Dodgeson had a habit of telling fantastical stories to the girls while they were out on their adventures. One day, he named the female protagonist of one of the stories Alice, and Alice Liddell begged him to write it down. That much is accepted historical fact; that and his obsession with photography of children. We do know that sometime after that day, the Liddell family broke off relations with Dodgeson, who removed the pages corresponding with that time from his journal. All of his letters to Alice were burned by her family. What is not truly known, is what happened between Alice and Dodgeson to cause such a break, which is where the power and mystery comes into Benjamin’s story.
The book was beautifully written, but initially I found myself wondering why exactly I should care about this story. I still don’t know, in the abstract, why I should care about Alice Pleasance Liddell, but I do know that I care very deeply about what happened to the Alice Liddell of Benjamin’s story. Early on in the book there was a strong sense of something being not quite right with Dodgeson, and with his relationship with the girls. No accusations were made, but there was a definite suggestion to the modern reader of pedophilia, enough that I was highly uncomfortable whenever the girls were alone with him. Then, suddenly, we jump to the time after the break between Dodgeson and the Liddells, not knowing for the longest time exactly what happened.
It was initially this question of what happened that kept me reading. However, as Alice grew up, so did her voice mature as she told her story. I frequently lost myself in Alice’s life, forgetting that this was a work of fiction because her voice was so believable. The writing was fantastic and the character development of Alice Liddell was fantastic.
I sort of wish I had read this back in 2009, because then I would have had the satisfaction of placing it right away on my ‘best of the year’ list.
This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
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