Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson
The Alice of Alice I Have Been is Alice Liddell, the child muse for Charles Dodgson, a mathematics professor who published Alice in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll. Dodgson was a talented amateur photographer who specialized in portraits of children. Some of his portraits of young girls, including one he made of Alice when she was seven, look uncomfortably seductive to modern eyes. Alice and her sisters Ina and Edith, the daughters of a dean of Oxford College, lived on the campus in an era when women did not attend college and the great majority of the professors and students were not allowed to marry; the girls had few playmates of their own age. Dodgson, a family friend and gifted storyteller, was trusted to take the girls on outings, usually but not always accompanied by the girls' governess. When Alice was eleven, the Liddells suddenly broke off their relations with Dodgson. Why? Letters and diary entries that might have shed light on the reason were destroyed, so modern scholars, literary sleuths and novelists can only speculate.
Benjamin tells a heartfelt story that evokes sympathy for all her characters, and especially for young Alice Liddell, a spirited and intelligent girl constrained by a society which insists on rigid proprieties and dresses girls in layers of starched, white clothes that attract dirt smudges the moment a child acts like a child. Alice yearns not just for love but for the freedom to run, to explore, to wiggle her toes.
What happened between her and Dodgson? Gently, insightfully, Alice I Have Been leads readers into the heart of the mystery, and its solution is all the more credible because it avoids easy sensationalism and portrays Alice as a complex individual, not a stereotyped child. It continues to follow her life as a young woman whose experience of love is made more difficult by her past as "Alice in Wonderland," and as an elderly woman who still cannot escape the burden of "being Alice." (2010; 365 pages in the 2011 trade paperback edition which includes a Reader's Guide separating fact from fiction)More about Alice I Have Been at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository