I had not yet met Melanie Benjamin when I first read her novel Alice I Have Been. Since then we have become friends and I’ve had the pleasure of showing her around my Lewis Carroll collection. With Alice Liddell’s birthday last week (see last week’s blog) it seemed a good time to share my long review of her novel which was originally published in a small journal I edit called Lewis Carroll Review.
It is not merely the proximity of their publication that links Melanie Benjamin’s fictionalised “autobiography” of Alice Liddell, Alice I Have Been with A. S. Byatt’s sprawling and complex The Children’s Book. Byatt’s novel, which includes several references to Alice in Wonderland, has in common with Benjamin’s an exploration of the loss of childhood innocence, the changing role of English women from the Victorian era through the end of World War I, but most of all an examination of the often slippery relationship between who we are and the stories we tell (or, in the case of both Byatt’s Tom Wellwood and Benjamin’s Alice Liddell, the stories that are told to, for, and about us.)
Late in Alice I Have Been, Alice meets Peter Llewelyn-Davies, the inspiration for Peter Pan. “We’re the only two people in the world who know, absolutely, what it will say on our headstones,” says Alice, and we are stuck by the exclusivity of the club to which they belong—people whom the world will want to remember not as themselves, but as fictional children. “People like to think life is a fairy tale,” says Peter. It is a club both exclusive and fraught with peril. Peter ultimately committed suicide, as did Byatt’s Tom Wellwood; Christopher Milne, in his memoir about his own childhood, revealed very mixed feelings about “being Christopher Robin.” Alice I Have Been is, among other things, an examination of the changing relationship between Alice Liddell (and later Alice Hargreaves) and her fictional counterpart.
But while Byatt’s book is a work of fiction that weaves in real characters and events, Benjamin’s is nearly the opposite—a fully imagined autobiography of Alice that adds fictionalized events to what we already know. A wise writer once said that if you want to craft a proper biography, you should pen a three page factual time line of your subject’s life, then write a novel. In a sense, that is exactly what Melanie Benjamin, who includes a factual after-word, has done.
Alice I Have Been is a lovely evocation of a life full of sadness. There are moments of intense heartbreak, for the most part skillfully rendered. There are moments that make you gasp in horror, or sigh in delight. The past, especially the happy days of Alice’s early childhood in Oxford and her courtship with Prince Leopold, is beautifully drawn.
It would be easy for a Carrollian to get caught up in the minutia of what Benjamin “got wrong” in her portrayal of Victorian Oxford, but this is a work of fiction, and, incidentally, sticks much closer to known facts than works such as David Slavitt’s Alice at 80 or Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild. Small changes, such as placing Dodgson’s rooms, during Alice’s early childhood, where his sub-librarian’s office was, are easily forgiven as, in this case certainly, they serve the development of these (let’s remember) fictional characters.
The parts of the novel that seem most forced, however, are those where Benjamin, by her own admission, strays furthest from the record. Chief among these is the addition of a closer relationship between Alice and John Ruskin. Ruskin comes to represent the world of Oxford gossip, and his addition as a distasteful character, the attempts to draw parallels between the Ruskin/Rose La Touche relationship and the Dodgson/Alice relationship, and the final uncomfortable scenes in Ruskin’s rooms all seem strained and add little to the novel’s narrative. If anything, they serve to show how good a story Alice’s life makes without such embellishment.
The exaggeration of Alice’s relationship with Prince Leopold, on the other hand, is quite effective—possibly because it is so much more rooted in reality (or at least possibility) than the Ruskin sub-plot. That Alice loves Leopold so deeply not only colors her memories of Dodgson but, ultimately, makes her marriage to Reginald Hargreaves as heartbreaking as much of the rest of her narrative. With the idealized love for Leo always in the background her marriage is portrayed as safe, perhaps even comfortable, but certainly passionless and with no great affection on her side. Only after the death of the second Leopold, her son, does she realize that she does love Regi, that she has, in some way, wasted so many years when she could have been truly happy. As her husband lies on his death bed she laments that he was the only person who didn’t need her to be someone else, who loved her for who she was—Regi cared nothing for the fictional Alice, he only loved the real woman.
And what of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson? His relationship with the young Alice Liddell is certainly portrayed as complex but, except for that nagging thought that “all that business” (as Ruskin calls the Liddell family’s break with Dodgson) might be revealed as something outside the accepted Carrollian canon, the Dodgson of Alice’s childhood is much as we would expect him to be. Benjamin has enriched the fictional relationship by showing it from the point of view of young Alice—much happens that can misinterpreted or misunderstood, and as she matures, Alice sees herself as taking the power in the relationship—a youthful misapprehension that will lead to “all that business.”
Only in the two invented scenes when the adult Alice visits Dodgson do we see a character whom, from his biography, we do not recognize. This is especially true in a scene in 1891 when Alice visits Dodgson with her sons in tow (in fact, her sister Rhoda only accompanied her on this visit). Dodgson is portrayed as a sad man with nothing better to do that pine for his past and rudely scold the children. He complains that all his child friends have grown up and that he is largely idle. In fact, Dodgson in this period had plenty of child friends, continued to be close with some who were grown, and was as busy as ever, producing an enormous amount of new writing, looking after his large family, and visiting London and the seaside regularly. The lonely doddering Dodgson rings no more true (and adds no more to the texture of the novel) than the gossipy Ruskin.
But this is Alice’s story, and while Dodgson’s personality may not always be perfectly drawn, hers makes for a compelling central character—one whose life, even without fictional elaboration, was worthy of such a treatment. She is at times cruel and manipulative, and times mistreated. Her relationships with her mother and her sisters are especially well developed. Her privileged childhood is exactly the sort of upbringing we would expect to lead to a full happy life, but she finds love thwarted as a child, as a young women, and even in marriage. Ultimately the novel shows us a woman trying to discover, in the words of her fictional counterpart, “who in the world am I?”
While she bemoans the inevitable loss of her own childhood (“How very tragic it is,” she says on the famous boat trip, “that childhood must ever come to an end”) young Alice nonetheless sees in herself some unique concoction of child and adult. And while it is Alice, we are reminded, who insisted that her fictional counterpart be recorded for posterity, it is also Alice who struggles through a life in which she is expected (by Prince Leopold, by reporters, and by her own children) to be, in some way, the Alice of Wonderland. It is an expectation she fights for most of her life—even when she pretends to be Alice of Wonderland at the auction of the manuscript in 1928 and during her trip to America in 1932, it is not until almost the end of her life, alone at Cuffnells, that she actually picks up Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, for the first time, reads it through, laughing out loud and finding it “a lovely, charming story.” She discovers characters from her childhood (for Benjamin is careful in the early Oxford scenes to draw our attention to the parallels with Wonderland characters provided by everyone from the imperious Mrs. Liddell to the flustered household servants called Mary Anns), but she also discovers herself—a self she never knew existed. And in the end, she embraces Alice. “Alice,” she says, “I have been.”
And what of the incident that led to the break between Dodgson and the Liddell family—what Ruskin refers to as “all that business”? Benjamin places it on a summer’s day when Dodgson escorted the Liddell girls back from Nuneham Courtney by train after a boating excursion with the entire family. As Alice is waking from a sleep as the train pulls into Oxford station, something happens—but the combination of her fuzzy childhood memories and her attempts to reconcile this “something” with later events (the break with Dodgson, the cruelty of her mother, the burning of her letters) gives us an incomplete picture of what that something is.
We begin to think that this “business,” tantalizing in its implications and frustrating in it’s incompleteness, will never be fully explained, but as the widowed Alice looks over her unsent letters to Prince Leopold and other letters from her past before burning them in the grate at Cuffnells, she finally remembers, and what she remembers might surprise you. While it is probably not what happened, Benjamin’s solution to the puzzle of the break neatly balances the dramatic needs of her novel with reality (and that is, after all, what historical fiction does). Brilliantly, the solution also throws new light on almost everything that happens in the first third of the novel—we suddenly understand not just Dodgson’s actions and Alice’s but also Ina’s and Mrs. Liddell’s.
How does Alice treat this revelation from her past, this memory that suddenly comes into focus after seven decades? “I suppose, at some point,” she says to Peter Llewelyn-Davies, “we all have to decide which memories—real or otherwise—to hold on to, and which ones to let go.” Alice keeps the memories of the “simple days in the sun”; she keeps the love letter that is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; the other memories, like the letters she burns, she lets go.
And perhaps that is the lesson of this novel—that there is beauty and pain in all loving relationships, and it’s up to us, ultimately, which to embrace, which to remember, and which, like the ashes of Alice’s unsent letters, to allow to drift away into nothingness.