Melanie Benjamin’s ALICE I HAVE BEEN is a fictionalized account of the life of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the real “Alice” behind Lewis Carroll’s (aka Charles Dodgson) ALICE IN WONDERLAND. The real nature of the relationship between the child Alice and the Oxford Don Charles Dodgson is a one-hundred and fifty-year old mystery. Until Alice was eleven years old, Dodgson was a frequent visitor at her household and would often take Alice and her sisters on outings. Then there was a mysterious break. The facts are sketchy, and the true nature of this break has been speculated upon ever since by historians and biographers. The explanations range from the innocent to the chilling.
Benjamin gives us a fictionalized first person account based on her speculation after researching the scant known facts. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I state that her choice is a reasonable middle ground between the more benign and salacious extremes. Other fictionalizations have taken more polarizing approaches; I personally found Katie Roiphe’s STILL SHE HAUNTS ME to be horrifying, if just as likely true. Benjamin’s version, however, has a certain ring of truth to it, perhaps because she gives Alice a voice that seems to fit the girl in the Carroll stories.
Benjamin’s Alice begins as a Victorian age child of privilege with a precocious attitude ill fitted to the age. She grows into a Victorian matron still chafing at her boundaries. Still, this Alice is firmly a product of her time and class and it can take some getting used to for a modern reader. The adult Alice will be smothering under the layers of restrictions a woman had to endure at the time, then turn around and complain about the servants getting above their station. It can be off-putting, but Benjamin does such a good job of ensconcing Alice in her time and place that the reader can understand the mindset. I know I never had a moment when I felt the privilege Alice enjoyed came even close to making up for the humiliating limitations of the role she was trapped in. And Alice’s voice rang true to the little girl we know, except the bizarre Wonderland is replaced with the equally eccentric Victorian age.
Unlike the stories, there is ultimately no way out for this Alice. For all the privilege, her life was a hard one beset by tragedy. Oddly, the tragedies involving life and death aren’t the ones that seem the most hurtful. The less lethal but more unfair tragedies are the most painful to witness, and it is without question that the adult Alice suffered for whatever it was that happened between her and Dodgson when she was a child. That a child victim was seen as marked is outrageous to a modern sensibility, and it boils the blood as a reader. Benjamin does a masterful job of making this point; whether the mysterious incident was innocent or severe, innocent Alice was marked by it for life. As for Dodgson, we’ll never really know if he was a perpetrator who escaped sufficient punishment, or an innocent victim of the times like Alice herself. One way or another, this is a must read for Wonderland addicts.