Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Review: Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin
Alice I Have Been is the story of Alice Liddell, the “real” Alice in Wonderland. She met Charles Dodgson at the age of seven, and helped inspire his classic children’s novel. Later, she supposedly had a relationship with Price Leopold, one of Queen Victoria’s sons (never definitively proved; the author gives it much more importance than it might actually have been), married an English country gentleman, and had three sons.
I have mixed feelings about Alice I Have Been. On the one hand, it’s a well-written and evocative story of a young woman’s growth to adulthood. It kept me engaged all the way through, and the book had almost a magical tone to it. On the other, I felt that there definitely were some weaknesses.
The author takes a lot of liberty with the known historical facts. First, it is still debated about what really happened to cause the break between Dodgson and the Liddells. Melanie Benjamin attempts to fill in the blanks; and while she makes an admirable effort, I didn’t, in the end believe it all. I also thought it odd (but this may have simply been a Victorian thing) that nobody thought that there was anything strange about Alice’s relationship with Dodgson—even after the now-famous beggar girl photograph was taken (though it really is a haunting photograph).
The parts of the novel where things are purely fictional (as with Alice’s supposed relationship with Prince Leopold, or the scenes with John Ruskin, who comes across as a lecherous, mad old buffoon here) are weaker, while the stuff that’s based purely on fact is much, much better. When Alice meets Peter Llewellyn Davies in America, I felt that the author gave too much of a fatalistic importance to the meeting.
I enjoyed Melanie Bejamin’s writing style immensely, but she has a habit of repeating herself in places (in once scene towards the end she mentions no fewer than three times that it’s May!), and she suffers from bad word choice sometimes (as in, “me legs were as numb as my other senses.” Maybe that’s true, if ones legs are now the sixth sense…), and she uses Americanisms in several places. In addition, the author tends to hit her reader over the head with her theme of growing up, or the lack thereof. This is a novel that shows a lot of great promise, but in my opinion needed a better editor.
Also reviewed by: Devourer of Books, S. Krishna's Books, A Reader's Journal