"Alice I Have Been" turns wonderland into opposite of fairytale

By Carolyn Williams
Senior Writer

Melanie Benjamin’s debut novel “Alice I Have Been” imagines a new backdrop for the famous story behind Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The book takes the beloved fairytale and turns it into a lackluster coming-of-age story, but the presence of one of our favorite childhood stories lurking around every corner saves the novel from being a complete disaster.

Benjamin divides her story into different stages of Alice’s life, narrated by the girl herself. Beginning with a look at the elderly Alice, exhausted by the literary weight she has carried since her youth, we are taken back to the Golden Afternoon itself. The novel is written as straight-laced historical fiction, but lovers of Carroll’s “Adventures” and anyone who knows the story behind the story will recognize Wonderland’s presence in the real world as well.

Alice Liddell, age seven, is willful and not at all the young lady her domineering mother, the austere “queen” of Oxford, (wife to the Dean of Christchurch), expects her to be. The crimson-robed, flirtatious mother (a Queen of Hearts if ever I saw one) is hellbent on raising her three daughters to marry well. Alice though insists on being difficult, in love as she is with the silly, fun-loving Mr. Dodgson, a professor of mathematics who will soon become famous under another name, for his fictional story starring his favorite Liddell child. Curiouser and curiouser still, Mr. Dodgson seems to reciprocate Alice’s feelings, leading to a pivotal moment which will change the pair’s lives forever.

Leaping ahead more than 10 years, we find a corseted Alice being courted by a prince of England. He is enchanted with the now-famous Alice, and for the first time since the vaguely-described “incident” with Mr. Dodgson, Alice is able to envision for herself a life in which she may outrun her past and finally escape her parents’ household. But, alas, circumstances prevent the advantageous marriage, and Alice is once again left to hope in vain for rescue.

We meet Alice again in her encroaching old age, married with grown children, facing war and times of trouble, both for her family and for her own identity. It is in this time of crisis that Alice is convinced to reenter the spotlight, for the world to once again greet its beloved Alice in Wonderland.

There is nothing bad about this story; the problem is more that there’s nothing particularly new or memorable. This, coupled with the fact that it is not so spectacularly written as to preclude the need for a particularly gripping plotline, creates a sadly uninspiring read. Benjamin is hardly the first person to suggest anything untoward between Alice and Dodgson; such rumors have been in circulation since the book’s original publication. And the young adult Alice, straining at her corset stays and violently wishing for independence, though a commendable feminist thinker for her historical setting, seems more like a cardboard cutout than an original creation.

Still, Benjamin’s child Alice is remarkably similar to the one originally immortalized by Carroll, and this admirable quality makes “Alice I Have Been” not quite so bad, after all.

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