Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin

Alice in Wonderland was an often consumed tale in my childhood. I’m sure my family could tell countless stories of me running around our backyard in my blue sundress, white tights, and Mary Janes, pretending to chase the White Rabbit. Even in adulthood, I still find much amusement in Alice’s adventures, whether in print, onstage, or film.

However, the more I consume the story, the more I sense a strange sort of melancholy among the dodo birds, disappearing cats, and mad tea parties. And certainly, that melancholy came fully into the light after reading a little more about the girl that inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Alice Liddell and her family live in the Deanery at Oxford College during the Victorian era. Alice and her two sisters delight in the company of one of the college’s professors, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. One fateful day, Mr. Dodgson takes Alice and her sisters on a rowing expedition, during which Alice asks for a story. And so, a tale is spun of a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a world of nonsense: a story that becomes a worldwide success upon its printing. But as Alice grows up, and her identity becomes intertwined with the literary Alice, the world of Wonderland not only seems farther away than ever but also frivolous and childish.

At the center of Alice I Have Been is Alice’s relationship with Mr. Dodgson, who is as enigmatic to her as he is kind, imaginative, and withdrawn. Alice even feels a strange, innocent attraction to him, since she adores his stories and trusts him unlike any other grownup in her life. Everyone else nags or ignores her, especially her mother and older sister Lorina. But only he seems to see her.

However enamored young Alice is with Mr. Dodgson, there is a sense of wildness and even danger in their interactions. He asks Alice to pose for a couple of photographs, dressed only in a thin white dress. And while it peels back the layers of Alice’s Victorian propriety and allows her a kind of spiritual awakening, there’s a sinister, sexual underbelly to it all. This is especially concerning since it happens when Alice is only a young child and Dodgon was in his late twenties.

Not surprisingly, many people have looked at this interaction, among Dodgson’s many other similar interactions with young children, and accused him of being a pedophile. While his many biographers claim otherwise, instances like this don’t make his character any less strange or uncomfortable. One could even argue that everything Alice feels toward the man is the result of a predator grooming his victim. However, I am not in any way an expert on these two people, so I can’t be certain what Dodgson intended, but that doesn’t mean that his behavior is easily excused.

When the narrative moves into Alice’s adulthood, she keeps alluding to an incident that caused her and her family to distance themselves from Mr. Dodgson. Given the man’s behavior up to this point, it’s easy to guess what happened, but it’s not the only thing that causes Alice’s relationship with him to grow sour.

As Alice in Wonderland grows more popular. Alice struggles with the dissonance between herself and the literary Alice, with many people being more excited to meet a fictional character than the real her. At one point, during her courtship with Prince Leopold, she wonders if he is more in love with her or the little girl who met a talking rabbit and ate magical food.

Needless to say, this dissonance does not get easier to handle as Alice grows older. And if this part is truly accurate to the real Alice Liddell’s life, I don’t envy her at all.

It’s sad to watch Alice’s disdain for Wonderland grow. Once, she would have delighted to hear that word spoken, but she soon grows to despise it, even refusing to read the story at the request of her sons. After too many tragedies, the magic and promise of Wonderland are impossible to hold onto.

Not that one can blame Alice for becoming so weary. Once so excited to grow up, she now wishes that she had never reached for Wonderland at all. But that’s part of what makes this story so compelling for me: seeing those moments in Alice’s life that replaced the magic with melancholy, and the tragedies that forced her to grow up.

Alice I Have Been is a remarkable story of childhood innocence lost to world-weariness: a storm that we must all weather. It was certainly unfair of Alice Liddell to become nothing more than a vessel for people’s fantasies and wishes, but at least her story, as it intertwined with Lewis Carroll’s, lives on in this way.

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