Alice I Have Been

by Melanie Benjamin

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, or The Book Depository

More fiction about Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell:

Still She Haunts Me by Katie Roiphe (2001), a novel about Charles Dodgson and his relationship with Alice Liddell and her family. More info

Other novels for adults about young girls:

Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (2012), about the twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, from the time her parents sent her to become an anchorite at the age of eight until her later years. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013), about a girl born in the years before World War I who is reborn each time she dies, and eventually has a dramatic encounter with Hitler. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi (1994), about a dwarf growing up in Germany in the years before and after Hitler comes to power. More info

Nonfiction about Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson:

The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester (2011). More info

The Real Alice in Wonderland by C.M. Rubin (2010). More info

The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf (2011). More info

Lewis Carroll: A Biography by Morton N. Cohen (1995). More info

At the Movies:

Alice in Wonderland, the 2010 Tim Burton film starring Mia Wasikowska as Alice and Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

Alice in Wonderland, the 1951 animated Disney film in a remastered, restored anniversary edition.


Alice Liddell in the Oxford: Local Lives section of the BBC website

Back to Novels of Nineteenth-Century Europe

Back to Directory of Book Reviews