Children the world over love ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. Between film and literature, everyone knows of the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, the Walrus, the Carpenter, the Mad Hatter, Dinah, and the little blond girl in the blue dress, falling down a rabbit hole.
What some don’t know is that the Alice of Wonderland was inspired by the real Alice Liddell of Oxford, who was only five when she first met Charles Dodgson, a nervous academic who would later assume the infamous pen name of Lewis Carroll. He became a family friend and was soon a staple in the lives of Alice and her siblings. They were charmed by his stutter, shyness, and love of stories, and one day when Alice was ten, she asked him to write her into one of his spontaneous tales. The rest, as they say, is history.
And then there is the untold story. In her incredible novel ALICE I HAVE BEEN, Melanie Benjamin, author of THE AVIATOR’S WIFE, introduces us to the woman behind the girl frozen in the pages of a book, Alice Liddell Hargreaves. When the novel begins, she is old, in financial straits, and left to reflect alone on her life and the legend that has followed her for most of it. She doesn’t like Dodgson’s book, she clarifies almost immediately; in fact, she’s never read it. Still, all anyone cares about is the Alice, a character with whom she only shares a name. She didn’t ask to be immortalized. “Wonderland was all we [she and Dodgson] had in common, after all,” Alice laments.
But why does she feel this way? Early on, we learn that something happened after Dodgson wrote Alice’s story that caused the Liddells to cease all contact with him. The suspenseful narrative and periodic flashbacks make it impossible not to craft your own theories about what went wrong. Alice is the perfect blend of unreliable and sympathetic narrator, and her memories of Dodgson constantly toe the line between innocent and unsettling.
Switching between past and present, the book is really a master class in historical fiction. You may come to it for a fun literary backstory or a quick rainy-day read, but you’ll stay for the writing and the lush and lovely worlds that Benjamin paints.
My favorite scene was toward the end, when on a trip to America—and this really happened—Alice comes face-to-face with another famous child who was never really allowed to grow up: Peter Llewelyn Davies, otherwise known as Peter Pan. Benjamin’s invented conversation between the two of them is profound and lovely and essentially fan fiction come to life. The reader can see how, ironically, being trapped in youth has made them older than anyone ever should be. They are, quite frankly, damaged. I actually put the book down for a moment, realizing with sadness that such joy in my childhood had stemmed from such pain in someone else’s.
But that is the beauty of Benjamin’s storytelling. It gives a deeper and more human voice to the characters we think we know so well, and reminds us that in the right hands, truth can be just as stunning as fiction. It’s a read that’s worth your while, and perfect with a cup of tea.