January 22, 2012
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This week my book club will meet to discuss Alice I Have Been (B) by Melanie Benjamin. I would definitely have to say that I am expecting a pretty fired up discussion due to the provocative aspects of this historical fiction novel.
Alice Liddell is the Alice that inspired Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson a teacher of mathematics and sciences at Oxford. Alice’s father was a Dean at Oxford which put his family in the company of Dodgson. Dodgson enjoys the company of children and in particular Alice and her sisters. With the permission of their parents, he takes the children on day long outings – picnics and the like. At first, these trips are chaperoned by the girls Nanny and soon rumors flourish that there is a romantic relationship developing between Dodgson and the Nanny. These rumors disturb Alice who at a very young age seems to have very mature feelings toward him. How can a seven year old understand what she is feeling and know to hide those feelings? So begins the sometimes unbelievable and appalling “friendship” between Dodgson and Alice. While on several of these outings, Dodgson would entertain the children with stories that he created. These stories enchanted Alice and it is she who encourages Dodgson to write the story down “for her”. We know this story as the classic “Alice in Wonderland”.
The book opens with Alice relating her story at the age of 80. She is the widow of Reginald Hargreaves a man she struggled to love. He was aware of her “reputation” at the time of their marriage and truly loved her and spent his life protecting her; protecting her from the rumor and innuendo that disrupts and colors her entire life.
For me, Alice I Have Been was more of an historical memoir. I have done a bit of research and most of the story is fact not fiction. I found myself astounded at the inappropriate behavior that Dodgson exhibits and honestly was disgusted by how easily things happened. I don’t understand how a very young girl can have feelings that both excite and frighten her. Furthermore, I find it incredulous that her parents were not suspect of the interests of an adult male in female children. Of course, it is Alice’s mother who puts an end to the relationship but not before the damage has been done to Alice’s reputation. Much of what I have read about Lewis Carroll mentions the controversy surrounding his relationship with Alice and most of it tries to dispel anything inappropriate. In fact, the biographical page at the beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland accounts for his actions by saying, “his love of purity and guilelessness and his early experience with his many siblings made him prefer the company of children”. Why would that even be necessary to mention if there weren’t suggestions of other behaviors?
Clearly, our discussion of Alice I Have Been is going to be extremely interesting and highly charged. From the early chatter, I am anticipating the voices of many opinions and so far not any that condones or absolve Dodgson’s behavior. It has been awhile since we have read and discussed such a volatile book. For sure, I am really looking forward to it and will let you know how it goes.