In Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin brings to life the character of Alice Liddell, the little girl immortalized by Lewis Carroll (or Charles Dodgson, as she knew him) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Alice actually had quite an eventful life: she grew up as the dean’s daughter in an Oxford college, was befriended by the famous author whose hobby was photographing little girls, was (possibly) courted by Prince Leopold, son of Queen Victoria, and later married and lost two sons in World War One. In her later years Alice made her living from her fame as Carroll’s muse, though, as Benjamin depicts her in this fine and engrossing novel, she always has an ambiguous relationship both with her fictional alter ego and with its creator, Dodgson/Carroll.
Benjamin does a wonderful job of getting inside Alice’s head, as well as believably recreating the world she lives in. She takes historical mysteries, such as the circumstances under which Dodgson photographed seven-year-old Alice in a ragged gypsy dress, and the sudden break in Dodgson’s friendship with the Liddell family a few years later, and weaves plausible explanations that fit the characters as she has developed them. More than just fleshing out the “story behind the story,” she has created a story that is engaging and interesting in its own right.
Of course, reading a novel about a woman who is famous because of her friendship with a male author and her link to his book, made me think inevitably about my own Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson. I’m so fascinated by these kind of stories, and I’m glad Melanie Benjamin’s is getting the attention it deserves. Having it appear in a year when there’s a big-screen remake of Alice out doesn’t hurt, I’m sure. Maybe when Tim Burton turns his attention to Gulliver’s Travels, I should try to find someone to reprint Violent Friendship. Anything to rescue another of the lost voices of women we know only through the gaze of their male admirers!