The well loved children’s tale Alice in Wonderland has been a source of wonderful fascination for generations now. The tale of an underground land with fanciful creatures and a little girl who seems to take it all in her stride.
But the story behind the tale seems to be a little more sinister. In her latest novel, Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin explores the world of the real Alice – a young girl befriended by Lewis Carroll.
Oxford, England, 1859 and Alice Liddell is the nine year old daughter of the Dean of the college. Living a pampered life with her brother and sisters in the midst of the hustle and bustle of college life she is anxious for experiences beyond what her family expects. Nothing too drastic, she would just like to be able to roll in the dirt and play without being reprimanded for getting dirty. She and her sisters are befriended by Mr Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll), a maths professor at the college. An unusual man, he seems to find the company of children more to his liking than most adults and spends many an afternoon entertaining the young Liddell girls.
Whilst on one of their outings he recounts a tale to the three girls – Alice’s story, it is the tale that we have all come to know and love. For several years afterwards Alice Liddell begs him to write the story down for her, without knowing that once he does it will change her life forever.
Whilst Melanie Benjamin’s novel is based on fact, much of the tale of Lewis Carroll and the young Alice remains unknown. What is known is that Lewis Carroll preferred the company of little girls to adults, he liked to photograph them (including Alice Liddell) in revealing poses and entranced them with his fanciful tales. But whether there was anything more sinister than that in his behaviour is unclear.
Having said that, reading this story was really a bit creepy. Lewis Carroll was a grown man and he chose to spend his spare time in the company of three young girls (admittedly with their governess always present), and seemed particularly besotted with Alice. And she, in turn, was equally besotted with him. As an 11 year old she appeared to have feelings for ‘her Mr Dodgson’ that seem inappropriate for a girl her age. Unable to articulate them clearly, she was nevertheless able to make them known. Were these feelings reciprocated? I guess we’ll never know. But Melanie Benjamin has given us her take on these events, and it’s an enthralling read.
Although a bit creepy, this story was equally brilliant and I couldn’t put it down once I started. But I have to say, I don’t think I’ll ever look at Alice in Wonderland in quite the same way again.
Available now: HarperCollins RRP$32.99