TERRY GROSS, host:
The tale of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" has fascinated readers ever since its publication in 1865. But a new novel explores the possibility that the charms of Lewis Carroll's classic may have eventually faded for the real-life Alice.
Book Critic Maurine Corrigan has a review of Melanie Benjamin's new novel based on the life of the young muse, called "Alice I Have Been."
MAURINE CORRIGAN: Like most preteen heroines of classic children's literature, Alice of "Alice in Wonderland," of course, is a mistress of misrule: bossy, resourceful and a bit of a tomboy. Despite that perfectly starched get-up of pinafore and pantalets capped off by blonde curls, Alice chafes against convention. That's why she fits in just fine in the psychedelic netherworld of Wonderland, and also why she's been beloved ever after by restless girl readers and feminist scholars.
No wonder that the first words that Alice utters in the opening lines of Melanie Benjamin's haunting new novel about the real Alice, Alice Liddell, are words of soft rebellion. But, oh, my dear, I am tired of being "Alice in Wonderland." Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.
The year is 1932, and Alice Liddell is 80 years old. She's writing those words in a letter to her son, who implores her to leave her home in England and sail to New York, where Columbia University is eager to bestow upon her an honorary doctorate and a tea party.
The occasion is the celebration of the centenary of the birth of Arthur Dodgson - aka Lewis Carroll - and it really did happen. One certainly can imagine that Alice Liddell felt both tickled by that ongoing attention and trapped, because the tale that gave her and so many generations of readers such anarchic pleasure also, paradoxically, fixed the real Alice to a fictional identity, one that she could never quite outrun. Melanie Benjamin's novel is called "Alice I Have Been," and though it occasionally stumbles into melodrama, most of the time it's a nuanced, moody envisioning of the life of Alice Liddell.
Alice, as any Wonderland fan knows, was a daughter of the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford, where Arthur Dodgson was a stuttering mathematics don. As the origin myth goes, one golden summer afternoon, Dodgson and 10-year-old Alice, along with some companions, went for a boat ride and he spun out the tale of "Alice in Wonderland," which she begged him to write down. There's certainly enough suggestively weird imagery lurking in "Alice in Wonderland" to give any post-Freudian reader pause. But coupled with the fact that Dodgson, an early photography enthusiast, took pictures of young girls, including a famous one of seven-year-old Alice scantily clad as a gypsy waif, Benjamin's rendering of Dodgson as a gentle ancestor of Humbert Humbert seems warranted.
In this finely detailed snippet, Alice recalls undressing for that gypsy girl outdoor photo shoot and her dawning awareness of a more mundane dimensions of her own upper-class female helplessness. I took the gypsy dress, held it up to me, then dropped it to the ground. Clutching my own skirt, I fingered the stiff, familiar lace like a good-luck charm. Then I realized something very important. I realized I had never before undressed myself. All my buttons were in the back. Every night, I obediently turned around and waited for someone to unbutton all of them, help me step out of the billowing fabric, unfasten all my petticoats -again, all of which fastened at my back. Every night, someone did.
Unexpectedly, Benjamin's novel becomes even more interesting in its second half, as Alice grows into a young woman, struggling to shrug off her Alice mantle, as well as the whispers in Oxford of something untoward in her past relationship with Dodgson, who was indeed banned by Alice's family from seeing her and her sisters a year after that immortal boat ride. "Alice I Have Been" graces an imagined Alice Liddell with her own voice and story, but what really sets this latest Victorian fictional resurrection apart is its awareness of the demonic dimension of great literature.
Powerful stories captivate their readers, and sometimes also their muses. As Benjamin vividly depicts here, the young girl who became the muse for one of the most rollicking children's tales of all time may have also become, to some extent, its prisoner, pressed into the looking glass of its fictions.
GROSS: Maurine Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Alice I Have Been," by Melanie Benjamin. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site: freshair.npr.org. And you can friend us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, where you can say hello to our new digital media person, Melody Kramer.
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