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Book World reviews 'Alice I Have Been,' by Melanie Benjamin

IT GIRL: Liddell, the inspiration for
IT GIRL: Liddell, the inspiration for "Alice in Wonderland," photographed by Lewis Carroll, circa 1859. (Lewis Carroll Via Associated Press)
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By Elizabeth Hand
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ALICE I HAVE BEEN

By Melanie Benjamin

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Delacorte. 351 pp. $25

Have any books been as heavily annotated, adapted or analyzed as Lewis Carroll's two Alice novels? They've inspired countless literary, film, stage and musical adaptations; pornography, computer games and pop music; enough dissertations to fill the Royal Library of Alexandria, as well as a neurological condition, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, characterized by the perception that one is growing larger or smaller.

Nor has Alice's creator, the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was a pseudonym), escaped intense scrutiny as regards his friendships with young girls -- especially Alice Liddell, one of three sisters whose famous "golden afternoon" spent boating with Dodgson on July 4, 1862, resulted in the tale he recorded and published three years later as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

A gifted amateur photographer, Dodgson produced numerous portraits of Victorian artists and writers, including Tennyson, Charles Kingsley and John Ruskin, and Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Millais. But very different images have provoked the most interest in Dodgson's pictures, and these are the inspiration for Melanie Benjamin's diverting, if somewhat pedestrian, first novel, "Alice I Have Been." In an author's note, Benjamin mentions stumbling upon the exhibit "Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll." "Imagine my surprise," she writes, "to discover that the photography of Lewis Carroll . . . consisted primarily of images of -- young girls. Rather provocatively posed young girls."

As a revelation, this ranks with the shocking news that Quentin Crisp was gay. Dodgson's obsession with Alice Liddell is the heart of Benjamin's novel, narrated by the octogenarian Alice. If the first section offers little in the way of new or tantalizing insight into the relationship between the mild-tempered Oxford don and his child muse, Benjamin does a decent job of evoking the overstuffed atmosphere of the Liddell household and the dance of shifting loyalties between the three sisters and their odd gentleman friend.

She's less successful at capturing the voice of the 7-year-old Alice, who often sounds like a slightly dim cousin of Lemony Snicket's Baudelaire orphans: "Mr. Dodgson's vest scratched against my cheek as he bent down to meet me; he paused a minute to smell the top of my head. He was fond of doing that, I'd noticed lately. While I could perceive no harm in it, as long as he didn't have a cold, still I couldn't prevent a little shiver from chasing itself up and down the back of my neck. It wasn't a frightful shiver. . . . No, this shiver was more curious. As if it might lead me to some immense danger, or some immense delight, I couldn't decide which."

The adventures of the grown-up Alice are more sharply rendered, as Benjamin ventures into less-well-known territory. Alice's friendship with Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria's hemophiliac son, is here imagined as a star-crossed romance, its dissolution leading to her long, companionate marriage to Reginald Hargreaves.

Still, the most powerful and poignant sections deal with the fates of Alice's three adult sons. Dream-children roam in Wonderland forever; their real-life counterparts, sadly, are never so fortunate.

Hand's ninth novel, "Illyria," will be published this spring.


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