Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Love in the time of Victoria...Queen Victoria, that is.

I have been meaning to post about this book for the last few months, as it was a book I mentioned on the radio for the Round Table book discussion on WAMC back in January, but I'm afraid real life derailed the blog for a while. But noticing the display of Lewis Carroll books at the Odyssey today prompted me to dig this so I could post it.

ALICE I HAVE BEEN by Melanie Benjamin is a new(ish) hardcover novel that is the ingenious imagining of the inner life of Alice Liddell, the real life little girl who was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Now I have to confess that I’m a huge fan of the Alice classics--I read the books so often in my childhood that I took to reading them backwards AND upside-down just to keep things interesting. The poem "Jabberwocky" was the first poem I ever memorized (quite possibly the only poem I ever memorized) and I can recite it to this day, but this novel is so vividly imagined and compellingly told that you wouldn’t have to be obsessed with Lewis Carroll to reap lots of enjoyment from the novel. It opens in 1932 when Alice is an old woman, reflecting on her life and how the public identification as Alice in Wonderland has affected her. The author deftly interweaves known facts into the fantasy of her conjectured story, and my curiosity was roused to the point that I actually did a few Google searches to sift through the narrative for fact vs. fancy (Alice did meet Queen Victoria's youngest son whilst he was attending Oxford, but there's no evidence that he courted her, for one example).

I found Alice Liddell’s childhood the most compelling section, where we see her interactions with Charles Dodgson, the Oxford mathematician who would go on to write the Alice books under the psyeudonym of Lewis Carroll. The author does an amazing job of maintaining a very delicate balance between a sweet, avuncular relationship and a predatory relationship between the two, and it’s clear that however ambiguous their friendship is to the outside world, the two of them find mutual comfort and understanding with each other.

It’s the section where Alice is a young woman that is so heartbreaking to me, which picks up several years after the rift between Dodgson and the Liddell family. Tired of overanalyzing the relationship that shocked the entire Oxford community, Alice retreats into the comfort of hazy memories and finding order in the strict ideas of Victorian fashion and decorum, preferring not to dwell on that universal great mystery of just how narrow the chasm is that separates childhood from adulthood. Ultimately this spellbinding novel is a meditation on the sorrows and losses on both sides of that chasm, which makes it such a satisfying read.

~Emily Crowe

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