Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been imagines the life and regrets of Alice Liddell, the real-life girl who served as the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice knew Carroll as Charles Dodgson, a neighbor who told her stories and photographed her as a young girl.
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Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back

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Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back

Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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(Soundbite of movie, "Alice in Wonderland")

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (as Mad Hatter) Well, as you can see, we're still having tea and it's perfect because (unintelligible) waiting for your return. You're terribly late, you know. Naughty. Have you any idea why a raven's like a writing desk?

HANSEN: Lewis Carroll's beloved tale, "Alice in Wonderland," has been reincarnated once again as a movie. This time, Tim Burton puts his unique cinematic spin on the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen and Alice's adventures.

There is also a new historical novel that tells the story of the young girl who inspired Carroll, the pen name of the Reverend Charles Dodgson. In the late 1860s, Dodgson was a budding photographer and a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, where Liddell's father was dean. When Alice was seven, Dodgson took her picture and that photograph was the inspiration for "Alice I Have Been," the new book by Melanie Benjamin.

She joins us from WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MELANIE BENJAMIN (Author, "Alice I Have Been"): Thank you.

HANSEN: Describe the photograph.

Ms. BENJAMIN: Ah. Well, it is of a very young girl, like many of Carroll's or Dodgson's photographs were. She's wearing rags, but they are very artfully arranged so that bits of skin are showing. What fascinated me the most is the expression in this very little girl's face. The expression was so, I thought, worldly and frank and adult - and dare I say - womanly.

HANSEN: Sultry would be the way to describe it...

Ms. BENJAMIN: Yes, you could. Yeah.

HANSEN: ...even though she's seven years old.

Ms. BENJAMIN: That's the thing. It's a startling picture.

HANSEN: Right. In the novel, I mean, you have members of her family sort of warning her or they just don't trust Charles Dodgson very much. But Alice Liddell loves him. You know, she seems to be way beyond her years in the way that she feels for him. What happened that ended their relationship?

Ms. BENJAMIN: We don't know. And that was one of my greatest gifts as a novelist. When I depict Alice having this crush on him, these feelings for him, she's 11 in the book and I don't think that that is as unusual a thing as we might think. I can remember when I was 11 and I had quite a crush on my fifth grade teacher who - I think we have feelings. And particularly in the Victorian times, a girl could be married legally at the age of the 12.

So I don't think it's that unusual that she had these feelings for this man, who seemed to pick her out of her family and hold her as something special in her life. And then as far as what ended the relationship, when he was 31 and she was 11, there is this abrupt break in the relations. It resulted in her mother burning all the correspondence between the two of them, and in his relations, later on, deleted the portions of his diary that dealt with this time.

For 150 years, historians have been trying to figure out what happened. Every few years someone else comes up with a new concept, or a new theory, or a new idea. Alice and her family never ever spoke of this. There were rumors. There were rumors around Oxford. But what I take away from this is that 150 years later, we still so very much want to know what happened.

HANSEN: You start the book when Alice is an older woman, I mean, she's in her 80s. You have her wanting to write to her sister, who was very suspicious of the relationship between Alice and Dodgson.

Ms. BENJAMIN: Right.

HANSEN: What was the letter that you found that you begin the book with?

Ms. BENJAMIN: The one that I begin the book with?


Ms. BENJAMIN: Is just I've never found the entire letter, but I have found this bit of it. And it begins: But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired. And I just thought that was an amazing way to begin this story, because she was Alice in Wonderland to someone in a different way all through her life.

HANSEN: Now, the manuscript was given to her and he had written "Alice in Wonderland" just for her.

Ms. BENJAMIN: He wrote the story down for Alice. It took him a couple of years. He told it to her - it was 1862 and she was 10 when he told her the story. And it was not until November of 1863, I think it was, that he actually sent it to her - what he had promised that he would write down for her. He illustrated it for her. And even at the end - even though the Alice is 10 in the book, he pasted a photograph of her at age seven at the end of it, which I find fascinating.

HANSEN: Well, the thing is, I don't think he wanted - Dodgson wanted her to grow up.


HANSEN: He wanted her to, you know, forever keep her in the amber of being, you know, between seven and 10 years old. What do you want us to take away?

Ms. BENJAMIN: There is a stereotypical victim/predator here, I think that has kind of become one of the conventional ways to look at their relationship. And I really believe that the truth is more complex than that. I think that he was a very lonely man and she was a very lonely little girl. And I think the tragedy is that they came together at the wrong time.

And perhaps if it had been 10 to 15 years later, things might've been different for them. But this relationship, however tragic it was - and it was truly tragic - it gave the world Wonderland after all, so that there's both beauty and tragedy in this relationship between two very lonely people.

HANSEN: Melanie Benjamin is the author of the historical novel "Alice I Have Been," published by Random House.

Melanie Benjamin joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Thank you so much.

Ms. BENJAMIN: Thank you.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Liane Hansen.

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