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Alice I Have Been    by Melanie Benjamin order for
Alice I Have Been
by Melanie Benjamin
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin does a brilliant job of imagining the life of Alice Liddell Hargreaves. A young Alice Liddell was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and without her the story would never have been written.

As I followed the author through Alice's long life, I kept wondering how close she kept to the historical record. She answers this at the end in an informative Reader's Guide, in which she discusses the price childhood muses pay for immortality. Benjamin also tells us that Alice I Have Been 'is a story, very much, of the Victorian era. It's a story of suppression, of rigid constraints, primarily for women; it's a story of blurry intents, of the importance of appearances, of the lifetime of consequences that can follow one simple, half-understood action.'

The novel opens on an eighty-year-old Alice writing to her surviving (and least loved) son Caryl, 'But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland.' She has just given away her childhood, in the form of a simply bound manuscript, in order to save her sons' heritage. Readers are then taken back to Alice's childhood years, as the middle of three small princesses of Oxford, where their father (who said of tomboyish Alice that 'God Himself broke the mold when it came to that one') is Dean of Christ Church.

Alice, her elder sister Ina, and their governess Pricks vie for the attention of Mr. Dodgson, the shy, stuttering mathematics don who takes the girls and Pricks on frequent excursions and likes to photograph them. One day when Alice is seven and alone with Dodgson, he asks her to change into a scant gypsy costume and takes her picture. He tells her that he dreams 'Of Alice. Wild and charming and ever young, yet also old. I dream of you as you are - and as you would like to be. As I would like you to be.'

When Alice is ten, Dodgson makes up a story on an outing, that she eventually persuades him to write down for her - Alice's Adventures Under Ground that becomes Alice in Wonderland. Then something happens that causes a break between the Liddells and Mr. Dodgson and casts a pall over Alice's future - this mystery pulls the reader through the rest of the story and the gossip surrounding it destroys the grand romance in Alice's life, after she and Prince Leopold (youngest son of Queen Victoria) fall in love.

We follow this strong woman through a long life filled with disappointment, tragedies - the loss of a beloved sister, of the love of her life, and of two sons in the first World War - and, almost too late, a recognition of love. Alice - who had been 'a gypsy girl, a muse, a lover, a mother, a wife' - eventually realizes that her banishment of Dodgson from Wonderland caused him to do the same to her years later. Alice I Have Been is a remarkable, well researched novel, one that I strongly recommend to you.

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