Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back

Alice Liddell, photographed by Lewis Carroll

Seven year-old Alice Liddell, photographed by Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll/Metropolitan Museum of Art/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Lewis Carroll/Metropolitan Museum of Art/AP
Alice I Have Been: A Novel
By Melanie Benjamin
Hardcover, 368 pages
Delacorte Press
List price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Charles Dodgson, a shy and awkward mathematics teacher in Oxford, England, spent a good deal of his free time with the Liddells: a family with three sisters who lived just across the street. At the age of 10, Alice, the youngest of the Liddell girls, requested that Professor Dodgson write down one of many the stories he told her. A few years later, he sent over "Alice's Adventures Underground," a manuscript dedicated to the real little girl he spent so much time with.

Dodgson's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published shortly thereafter, under the pen name Lewis Carroll. In the back of the book was a photograph Dodgson had taken of Alice Liddell.

It was this picture that startled Melanie Benjamin, author of a new historical novel, Alice I Have Been. At an recent exhibition of Dodgson's photographs, Benjamin was surprised to learn that the man known to millions of children as Lewis Carroll kept an extensive portrait collection of very young girls. She was startled especially by the first such portrait Dodgson had ever taken: Alice Liddell at seven.

"What fascinated me the most was the expression in the little girl's face," Benjamin tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "The expression was so worldly and frank and — dare I say — womanly." She decided to write the novel after further investigation turned up this letter from the adult Alice Liddell to her older sister:

But oh my dear, I am getting tired of being Alice in Wonderland.
Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.

"I just thought that was an amazing way to begin this story," Benjamin says, "because she was Alice in Wonderland to someone in a different way all through her life."

The letter ends there. Much else of what we know about the real Alice Liddell is similarly truncated: she says that Alice's mother burned all correspondence between her daughter and their neighbor Charles Dodgson, and Dodgson's relations deleted the sections of his diary that dealt with that part of his life.

Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin lives in Illinois. She previously published two novels under the name Melanie Hauser. Dennis Hauser hide caption

itoggle caption Dennis Hauser

"For 150 years, historians have been trying to figure out what happened," says Benjamin. "Alice and her family never ever spoke of this. There were rumors around Oxford, but what I take away from this, 150 years later: we still so very much want to know what happened."

Alice I Have Been is Benjamin's best guess: it features octogenarian Alice looking back at her life, and spelling out how its events have been shaped by Dodgson's book — an instant classic upon first publication.

Much of the plot of Benjamin's book may be authorly invention, but she gets full marks for one of her theories: our persistent interest in the story Carroll committed to paper. As Tim Burton's new 3-D adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland proves, we remain transfixed by Alice's adventures on the other side of the looking glass.

Alice I Have Been is a fantasy about the girl looking into the mirror, unable to leave her notorious childhood completely behind her as she grows all the way up.

Excerpt: "Alice I Have Been"

Alice I Have Been
Alice I Have Been: A Novel
By Melanie Benjamin
Hardcover, 368 pages
Delacorte Press
List price: $25

Chapter 1

Oxford, 1859

Off with their — legs. that was the curious notion I had as a child.

That certain people — queens, generally — lost their heads was understood to be a historical fact.

But in my world, legs were missing with alarming regularity as well. The men in their long academic robes, the women in their voluminous skirts; everyone skimming, floating, like puffs of cotton in the air — that is the first, and most vivid, memory of my childhood.

I knew, of course, that children possessed legs; yet the legs seemed to disappear as their owners grew up, and if I never questioned the logic of this it must be because, even then, I understood that Oxford was a kingdom unto itself. It was different from, and superior to, the rest of the globe (which of course meant Britain, for those were the years when the sun never set on Victoria's empire), complete with its own rules, language, and even time; all the clocks in Oxford were set five minutes ahead of Greenwich mean time.

Naturally, it follows that if Oxford was its own kingdom, then I was its princess — one of three, to be precise — because my mother was, as everyone knew, its queen.

Remarkable for a woman who bore ten children — one would have assumed she was perpetually in a state of bearing a child, or waiting for a child, or getting over a child — Mamma made certain that the Deanery was the social center of Christ Church, which was of course the social center of Oxford. No one dared give a party or a bazaar or a dance without her approval. At times she even graciously made room for other queens; Victoria herself once stayed with us, although not even her plump, imperious personage intimidated Mamma.

Papa was merely the Dean of Christ Church, responsible for the education and religious upbringing of hundreds of gentlemen, including the sons of that same queen. Even when I was so young that the only place I could look was up, for I was all too well acquainted with the ground, I knew that he was quite important. Instructors would bow to him, scholars would pale in his presence, princes deferred to him; entire halls full of young men would rise upon his entrance, as well as his departure.

While at home he could scarcely make himself heard; he was entirely eclipsed by Mamma, and entirely happy to be so. There was even a silly rhyme that made the rounds of Christ Church in those days —

I am the Dean, and this is Mrs. Liddell
She plays the first, and I the second fiddle

This did not reach my ears, however, until much later. For as the daughter of the Dean and Mrs. Liddell, I was sheltered, at least for a time, from most of the gossip that was the chief occupation of some of the finest scholarly minds of the age.

Privileged was how I would describe my early years, if only because I was told that they were such. I knew no life before Oxford, although Papa was, even then, a rising academic: domestic chaplain to Prince Albert, headmaster of the Westminster School in London. I was baptized in the Abbey, the fourth child, second daughter.

Ina was not baptized in the Abbey. I may have reminded her of this with some regularity.

While we still lived in London, an older brother, Arthur, died of scarlet fever. Papa had difficulty speaking of him later; his kind face, with the aristocratic nose and decided chin (which I, unfortunately, inherited) would grow quizzical, his brow furrowing, as if he — such a learned man — could not understand the simplest, most frequently asked question of all:

Why?

I don't recall that Mamma ever spoke of it one way or another. Although surely that can't be true.

When I was scarcely four — in 1856 — we arrived in Oxford, upon Papa's appointment as Dean of Christ Church. By then the family included Harry, the eldest, followed by Lorina, myself, and Edith — the three princesses. Ina was three years older than I, Edith two years younger. All of us — along with servants, fine china, heirloom silver, imported linens, and all the other necessities of a distinguished household — moved into the Deanery, which Papa had arranged to be enlarged and remodeled to accommodate our growing family. Even so, it was never quite large enough for Mamma's ambitions.

It was in this world, this Oxford, that my first memories were made. It was a peculiar world for a little girl, in many ways; there were few children my age, as all the students and dons at the time were supposed to be celibate. Only the deans, the senior members of the college, were allowed to marry, and most of them were of an age where children weren't possible. Papa was rather the exception to the rule, and I believe that he was proud of the fact.

Perhaps that was why there were so many of us.

Each night, after I was snug in bed, Old Tom, the bell in the imposing tower that was the centerpiece of Christ Church, tolled one hundred and one times (signifying the original number of students at the college); even as I struggled to remain awake for the first chime, I rarely made it all the way through to the end. Our home, the Deanery, was opposite the tower, our front entrance part of the pale stone fortress of buildings bordering the flat green Quad; we also had a private entrance opening up to the back garden. Quite literally, we lived among the students; I remember walking with Ina and Edith — three little maids all in a row, always dressed exactly alike, crisp white frocks in summer, rich velvets in winter — in the Quad with our governess, Miss Prickett, as young men removed their caps and bowed low, exaggeratedly, at our approach.

People in Oxford spoke in solemn, measured tones. Centuries-old traditions demanded to be followed, whether or not they made much sense. To me, still coddled in the nursery world of a proper Victorian childhood, they often did not; that is precisely why I wouldn't have changed them for the world. I was no ordinary little girl, I fervently believed, and Oxford only reinforced this notion. Every year on the first of May, we all gathered at dawn on the gray stones of Magdalen Bridge, sheltered by huge trees in the early burst of bloom, listening to the whisper of the river Isis down below. Magically, just as the first glow of sun painted the sky from purple to pink, a choir of pure, young male voices would float down upon us, singing ancient hymns to welcome summer.

My birthday was on the fourth of May; I cannot deny that as a child, I secretly believed this hallowed ceremony was somehow in honor of me.

Pricks — Miss Prickett — did not share this belief. She adored Edith, as did everyone; Edith was the most compliant creature on earth, and her swirls of russet red hair only helped endear her to everyone she met. Yet Pricks practically worshipped Ina; as the eldest, the most refined, she could do no wrong.

As for me, in the middle — the only one with pin-straight hair; Mamma deplored how it hung on my neck like seaweed, so she chopped it off, short with a heavy fringe that made me feel as vulnerable as a baby bird before it grows feathers — I must admit, Pricks tolerated me. Barely.

"Alice, what on earth did you do to your frock? Look at your sisters — they haven't managed to get awful dirt stains on their hems! Whatever were you doing?"

"I was playing in dirt," said I, frustrated by my need to state the obvious.

"Playing in dirt? On your knees? In a white frock? Who would do such a thing — white stains so!"

"Then why do we wear it, when you know we're going out to the garden to play? Why don't we wear brown frocks, or green, or perhaps even — "

"Brown? Who ever heard of wearing brown in May? You'll wear white, as your mother wishes. Brown. What can I do with such a child?" Whereupon Pricks would throw up her hands to the heavens, as if God alone could tell her what to do with me.

I suspected He couldn't. I had once overheard Papa say that "God Himself broke the mold when it came to that one," and I knew, somehow, that he meant me. Even in a house full of children, I was the only one ever referred to in such a singular way.

I was rather proud of that, to tell the truth.

Pricks was prickly. That's why I named her Pricks; it had nothing to do with her last name. Pricks exclaimed a lot; she threw her hands up a lot. She bristled when I asked her the most natural questions, such as why the wart on her face had a hair growing out of it whereas the wart on her hand did not.

"Alice," Ina would murmur, patting her long brown curls. Oh, how I longed to have curls! The greatest tragedy of my life, at age seven, was that I had short black hair exactly like a boy. "That's simply not spoken of."

"What is?"

"Warts. Pricks can't help it. It's not very nice of you to talk about it."

"Do you think she slept with a frog when she was little?"

"I — well, perhaps." I could tell Ina was interested in spite of herself; she relaxed her pose — sitting on the windowsill of the schoolroom, hands folded properly in her lap, head bowed in perfect ladylike composure — and actually swung her feet to and fro. "Still, ladies don't talk of such things."

"You're not a lady. You're only ten."

"And you're seven. I'll always be older than you." She clapped her hands with delight, while I scowled and longed to pull her hair. How unfair, how tragic, the world was; I would always be younger than her.

"But you'll always be older than me," Edith whispered, sliding her moist little hand in mine. I gave it a squeeze, as thanks.

"Oh, look, there 's Mr. Dodgson!" Ina jumped up and pressed her face against the windowpane; Edith and I joined her, although Edith had to climb up onto the cushioned window seat in order to see.

The three of us watched — the windowpane, warm from the sun, smooth against my forehead — as a tall, slim man, dressed all in black from the top of his hat to the toes of his leather boots, wandered into view. He was strolling, hands in pockets, across the generous garden that separated the Deanery from the library. Stopping to examine flowers, hedges, he refused to walk in any sort of straight path, altogether acting like someone hoping to be discovered.

Just then Papa ran into the picture, gown flapping behind him like giant insect wings. He consulted his watch, dangling precariously on its gold chain, with a shake of his head; a huge book was tucked under his left arm. Papa was always running late. I held my breath as he nearly ran Mr. Dodgson down; fortunately, at the last possible moment he swerved around him, not even noticing when Mr. Dodgson raised his hat and bowed.

Mr. Dodgson looked up, then, and saw us in the window; Ina gasped and ducked out of sight, mortified to have been caught spying on him. Ina always behaved so oddly in his presence; she basked in his attention, schemed of ways to encourage it, and then, at the very last minute, always pulled back. Yet whenever I pointed this out to her, merely trying to be helpful, she had a tendency to pull my hair or pinch my arm.

That didn't prevent me from continuing to comment upon it, however. If she didn't want my help, that was her misfortune.

I shook my head at her and then tugged on the creaky sash of the window until it opened enough for me to stick my head out.

"Hullo, Mr. Dodgson!"

"Hullo, Miss Alice, Miss Edith." He bowed in his usual stiff way. I had recently informed him that he walked as if he had a poker stuck down the back of his jacket. He had thought about this, considered it gravely, and agreed that he did, but that he couldn't help it.

I thought this was a reasonable response and left it at that.

"Alice!" Pricks bustled over — no doubt summoned by Ina, who was standing well away from the window, her arms crossed over her chest, glaring at me. "What on earth are you doing? Young ladies do not shout out of windows like monkeys!"

"Oh, I do wish I was a monkey!" I forgot about Mr. Dodgson for a moment; monkeys were my favorite animals, along with kittens, rabbits, hedgehogs, mice, and lizards. "Wouldn't that be smashing?"

"Alice! Wherever did you hear that word? Young ladies do not say 'smashing.' " Pricks reached over my head to push down the window. However, when she saw Mr. Dodgson smiling up at us, she hesitated. "Oh!"

"W-w-w-ould the young ladies like to join me for a pleasant st-stroll around the Quad?" He doffed his hat. "Accompanied by you, of course," he added hastily. I shook my head in sympathy; his stammer was worse than ever. Poor Mr. Dodgson! (Or — Do-Do-Dodgson, as it sounded coming from him.) Still, he never appeared too upset about it, unlike Pricks and her warts; she was always trying some new cream or lotion to be rid of them.

"Oh, well." Pricks smiled in that unexpected, scary way of hers; she bent slightly at the waist and twisted her face up almost as if she was going to be ill, but then, at the last minute, a smile appeared, a wide, snapping smile that revealed most of her teeth.

Patting her hair, smoothing her skirts, she swung around and surveyed the three of us, frowning at my dirty hem. "Alice, go ask Phoebe to change you at once. All three of you will have to change, I suppose — I might as well do the same."

"But why? I'll only get dirty again." Once more, I did not see why I had to remind her of the obvious.

"Because your mother will have a — will be quite disappointed, if I allow you out looking like that."

I was forced to admit that she had a point. Mamma would certainly make a fuss if she saw me, the Dean's daughter, outside in anything other than a stiff, freshly laundered white frock, the more frills, the better.

Pricks turned back to the window and whispered loudly, "We would be happy to accompany you, thank you so much, Mr. Dodgson. We'll join you directly."

"He can't hear, you know," I reminded her. "He doesn't hear out of his right ear. You have to shout."

"Oh, but I — oh, go ahead, Alice, but don't shout. Just — speak loudly."

I shook my head. Pricks was so exceedingly proper all the time, except when it came to Mr. Dodgson. Only he could make her behave in such a manner that I could almost, if I scrunched my eyes and tried very hard, imagine that she had once been a real little girl, like me.

"We would be happy to accommodate you," I said loudly, slowly, my voice as deep as Papa's when he gave a sermon. "We shall join you directly." Then I bowed.

Mr. Dodgson looked up at me, opened his mouth, and laughed. He was still laughing as he sat down on a bench to wait, after first taking care to pull his trousers up at the knees; men did this, I knew, to keep their trousers from creasing. I wasn't altogether sure why I knew that; it was one of the many bits of useful information I was just now aware that I possessed. When I was six, I had known nothing. Now that I was seven, however, I couldn't help but be impressed by how very wise I was growing.

"Come, girls!" Pricks clapped her wide brown hands. "Change quickly!" She bustled us out of the schoolroom, looking back at the blackboard with a sigh. "We really should get back to geography — it's such a lovely afternoon, though. We 'll study botany instead. That will be a pleasant change." And she smiled, violently, suddenly, to herself.

I wondered again at the ability of adults to turn every single pleasurable experience into a lesson. Did they do this only for our benefit? Or when they were alone, at the dining table or gathered for one of Mamma's musical entertainments, did they, even then, stop to say, "This tea is very delicious. Are you aware that it comes from India, the subcontinent, which has been a part of the Crown since the rebellion of 1857?"

I believed I was on the cusp of discovering the answer, for I was starting to be included in some of the entertainments held here at the Deanery. Only a month ago, Mamma had allowed Ina, Edith, and me to perform "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" for her guests. Mr. Ruskin, in particular, had pronounced himself impressed; he reached out to pat my hair as I walked past him, after we had curtsied good night.

Although he patted my hair, he had actually gasped at Edith's — "Look at those titian curls!" he exclaimed. I remembered to ask him what "titian" meant, during our last drawing lesson; he sucked in his breath and informed me my education was appalling but never did answer me. Not even after I pointed out that he had just missed an excellent opportunity to improve it.

"Alice, do hurry!" Ina grabbed my arm and pulled me down the wide gallery, lined on one side with the oil paintings of the English landscape that Papa so admired, on the other with an ornately carved banister crowned with ferocious lions at either end, as finials. "We mustn't leave Mr. Dodgson waiting!"

"Why ever not? He doesn't have anything else to do." I fervently believed that; while I knew, vaguely, that he taught mathematics at the college, I understood that this was not his chief occupation. No, he was ours more than the students'. He was our playmate, our guide on many excursions, our galley slave (he often took us rowing on the Isis, where we loved to pretend that we were Nelson and his men, while Mr. Dodgson did his best to maneuver us about as if we were at the battle of Trafalgar).

It was only recently so. My brother, Harry, along with Ina, had been his favored companions since the day he first made our acquaintance by seeking permission to photograph the Deanery from the garden; Mamma was fond of saying Mr. Dodgson showed up one day with his infernal camera and never really left. Edith and I were only summoned occasionally from the nursery, most often to be photographed. Harry went away to school this year, however, and Mr. Dodgson appeared, finally, to notice Edith and me, and to ask for us, along with Ina, when he called.

Ina did not appreciate this development, I knew. There was nothing she could do about it, and she never let Mr. Dodgson notice her resentment; she was, I had to admit, absolutely brilliant at presenting a sweet, simple face to the world, no matter her true feelings. Just as a lady should, Pricks never wearied of reminding me.

"You silly little girl. Of course Mr. Dodgson has other things to do. Loads and loads of things. He's a very important man." Pulling me into the nursery, Ina started unbuttoning the back of my dress, while Phoebe, our nurse, flew about, opening up cupboards until she found three identical white frocks, flounced with pink satin ribbons, the buttons covered in the same pink satin.

"I don't think so," I replied, remembering how Mamma had referred to Mr. Dodgson as "that nuisance of a mathematics tutor, a more obtuse man I have never met." Even though Papa corrected her — "Now, my dear, he is a don" — he had done it mildly. Papa was capable of standing up to Mamma, I knew, when he felt strongly about something. But evidently he did not feel strongly about Mr. Dodgson.

"Oh, Alice, why did you have to go and muddy your frock?" Ina was now stepping out of her own; her petticoats swayed to and fro as she crossed her arms over her chemise and glared at me. The way her eyebrows angled, high and disapproving, and the way her small mouth pursed, as if she was sucking on a lemon, made her almost always look cross, to be perfectly honest. "Those blue stripes on the bodice suit me so well! I despise the pink."

"I'm sorry." I genuinely was; I disliked getting dressed more than once a day. It was too much of an ordeal, what with all the buttoning and fastening and layer upon layer of stiff, scratchy underclothing. Chemise, pantalets, not one, not two, but three petticoats, stockings that I never could coax into staying smooth and high; my garters always came undone.

It would only get worse, I thought gloomily. One day I would have to wear a corset.

"C'mere, lamb," Phoebe said to Edith, who was kneeling in front of her dollhouse, a headless rag doll in her hand. "Let's get you into your fine feathers."

"It's so much fuss, simply to go outside." I raised my arms; Mary Ann, one of the maids, dropped the beribboned dress over my head.

"Are we ready?"

I turned toward the door; Pricks was standing there, in her new blue silk dress with yellow piping down the bodice that did not go well with her brown complexion, not at all. Still, she looked quite pleased with herself; she had even managed to add a pouf of false hair to the back of her head, so that it stuck out from behind her straw hat like the fuzzy tail of a bumblebee.

"Yes, Pricks," I said as Mary Ann buttoned up my last glove. Phoebe handed me a pink parasol. "Although what if Mr. Dodgson wants to take us to the Meadow? Perhaps to allow us to roll down a hill? I'll only stain my dress again, in that case."

"Mr. Dodgson won't do any such thing. He 's a gentleman," Pricks said with a sniff.

Again, I wondered just what part of him Pricks and Ina could see that I could not. It was almost as if we knew two different people, both with the name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. That was his full name; he had told it to me, after I confided that mine was Alice Pleasance Liddell, which I found rather a long name to write. However, he pointed out that his was longer by one letter, and that cheered me immensely.

I suspected, in a deep, serious part of me no one else knew I possessed, at least so far, which was somewhat worrisome, that Mr. Dodgson was the kind of person who would allow me to roll down a hill. I felt he was the only person on earth, actually, who would; he was my one chance to do this, to do other things that I desired, even things I did not yet know but somehow, I felt he did.

I felt it most when he looked at me as he stood behind his camera, holding the cap to the lens, counting slowly, his eyes never moving from mine as he exposed the plate. There was something about his eyes — the color of the periwinkle that grew at the base of the trees in the Meadow, such a deep blue — that made me feel as if he could see my dearest wishes, my darkest thoughts, before they made themselves known to me. And that simply by seeing them, he was also giving me permission to follow them. Perhaps he was even showing me the way. For I wasn't very comfortable with the dark thoughts — muddled, nameless thoughts — that sometimes came to me when I relaxed my watchfulness.

I was always on guard, you see. One had to be vigilant; for what, I did not know.

From Alice I Have Been: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. Copyright 2010 by Melanie Benjamin. Reprinted with permission by Delacorte Press. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

Alice I Have Been
Alice I Have Been

by Melanie Benjamin

Hardcover, 351 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Alice I Have Been
Author
Melanie Benjamin

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.