Saturday, January 9, 2010

Read this Book: Alice I Have Been

Who isn't in love with the story of Alice in Wonderland? In Alice I have Been, Melanie Benjamin creates a hypnotic portrait of the real Alice and her tangled relationship with Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who immortalized her in his books. I'm thrilled to have Melanie here to answer questions about her novel.

Charles Dodgson photographed other little girls, but what was it about Alice in particular that haunted him so? Was it that she knew her power, and if so, what evidence is there that she did (other than the intense photographs you include in the book?

The only conclusion that I could come to, based on the knowing expression in her eyes in that photograph, is that she did understand her power over him. Obviously, as well, she later asked him to write down "her" story that he first told her and her sisters on that summer afternoon; the story of a little girl named Alice who tumbled down a rabbit hole. Dodgson would go on to photograph other little girls and call them his "child friends," but Alice was the only one who inspired both a photograph and a book. That speaks volumes to me.

I couldn’t help but feel a nod to Roman Polanski, another artist who had a fondness for young girls, the difference, of course, being that Polanski was a predator who drugged and raped a young girl, while Dodgson seemed to just take photos. Recently, though, a letter was found from Dodgson that hinted of his being a pedophile (he admitted liking little girls better than boys.) Is it known if he ever acted on his feelings?|

I can't compare the two at all; there's absolutely no similarity. The letter you speak of wasn't known when I was researching ALICE, but having done a quick check, it seems to me it's quite cryptic, hasn't been authenticated, and doesn't at all add to the discussion of Dodgson's relationship with Alice. You have to remember it was a different time; Victorians dearly loved to discuss romance but acting upon it was often quite another matter; and Dodgson, like all of the dons at Oxford, took vows of celibacy as he was expected to be a member of the clergy, as well. While we will never know for sure, I find it difficult to believe he was very physical. He clearly struggled with conflicting thoughts and emotions - this is obvious in his diaries - but beyond that, we'll never know for sure.

What’s interesting to me, too, is how sympathetic Dodgson is in the book. We understand and feel for him, even though we know something is clearly off. Although his interest in her is peculiar (and John Ruskin’s is truly creepy), instead of taking her innocence, Dodgson actually gave her a great gift, immortalizing her in Wonderland, so in a way, she would not ever grow old. I’m wondering, what do you think would change with the public’s appreciation of Wonderland if it were discovered that Dodgson did indeed molest Alice? Or do you think it is easy to separate a great artist from not-so-great actions?

To me the relationship between Dodgson and Alice is truly complex, as most relationships are. I think they were two very lonely people who found each other at a particular time and what resulted because of this was both beautiful - it gave the world Wonderland, after all - and tragic, in that they were both forever changed and in some ways, denied happiness, because of their early devotion. I was never interested in portraying Dodgson as simply a predator and Alice as simply a victim; the truth is always more complex than that. The truth is we never know everything about those who give us beloved art, literature, music, etc., no matter what we might think. Yet we still enjoy the gifts they have given, all the same.

The great Victorian art critic John Ruskin figures prominently in the book. I remember reading inParallel Lives about his thwarted marriage to Effie (according to that book, seeing her naked so horrified him that he could not consummate his marriage.) What do you think it was about Victorian England that made so many of these literary figures (Jonathan Swift also had an aversion to grown women) appalled by adult females and so interested in little girls?

It's interesting, isn't it? That two men who never seemed to have healthy relationships with adult females would both be captivated by Alice Liddell? I have to think that again, the Victorians so romanticized love and the role of women that for some, the physical reality was just too much to handle. Thus they found it easier to perhaps focus on younger girls who had not yet hit puberty, preferring to extend the fantasy of the pure, ethereal idea of love and romance rather than earthly, physical reality of it.

Your notes about the research were as fascinating as the book itself—primarily about the torn diary page from Dodgson the day the split between him and Alice occurred and a cryptic remark by Alice’s sister Ina, in the beginning of the novel, in a letter, intimating that Dodgson had grown too affectionate? Can you talk about the research process, about what surprised you and what you expected? And what do you think was on that missing diary page?

Since I was most interested in following Alice Liddell beyond Wonderland, through to the end of her long, fascinating life, I enjoyed seeing the world change through her eyes. I have always been interested in the Victorian era and beyond; my interest in history really begins there. Previous eras don't fascinate me as much. So I had a very good working knowledge of all the changes Alice herself faced; gaslights to electric lights; horse and buggy and train to the automobile and even airplane; corsets to bobbed hair. Researching all that was great fun. I also enjoyed learning about Oxford; I knew very little about it, its traditions, history, architecture. Naturally I researched Lewis Carroll's life, but remembered always that my book was Alice's story, so we could only know what Alice herself knew about him. As I said above, as I learned more about Alice Liddell herself, I was very surprised to see the other figures from history that she knew well as the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church; John Ruskin, the Prince of Wales, Prince Leopold. She truly lived in a privileged world.

Others have speculated about what the missing pages of the diary might say; there is one scholar who recently claimed to have found them, although this is disputed. What most interested me was merely the fact that, 150 years later, we still find the relationship between Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson so fascinating. And we will never have all the answers.

In the book, there’s a great scene where the real Alice meets the real Peter Pan, and while he hates the mantle, she is now able to embrace it, which is a monumentally poignant moment. Would you say that Alice’s growing up, becoming an adult, something Dodgson seemed unable to do, was her salvation?

Yes, definitely. That unflappable, wise little girl in the books was already a miniature adult. Or as I say in the book, "A man who fancied himself a child and a child who thought she was a woman turned to each other on a hot summer day, mindful of nothing, no one, but each other" - that, to me, sums up their relationship perfectly.

You mention the other Alice narratives, Dreamchild, a fabulous film and Katie Roiphes’ book Still She Haunts Me. How do you feel those works act as companion pieces to your book? Do you disagree with any of the material?

I've not seen the film. Initially I did not read the Roiphe book, not until long after I turned in Alice I have Been. I can't agree or disagree with it as it's fiction; obviously it's not the story I wanted to tell, the story I saw in the eyes of that little girl in the original photograph, or the story I saw in the eyes of the wonderful, wise old lady in the photograph of Alice taken near the end of her life. That was my Alice, and it was her entire life story I wanted to tell. The story of this remarkable little girl who grew up to be an equally remarkable old lady, and all the things she was denied yet all the ways in which she ultimately survived - and it all begins and ends with Wonderland.


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Caroline Leavitt said...
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Katharine Weber said...
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Caroline said...

Apologies to all reading this. This was meant to be a post about a book and an author and one person took it to be a platform for his own disturbing views on the Roman Polanski rape case. When another writer confronted him, his next post grew more vile, so I have deleted all the back and forth.

Caroline said...

If this person posts again, I will continue to delete him.

Eileen said...

"Alice I Have Been" is a joy to read. . . the history and the biography and the author's way of solving some of Dodgson's secrets. . .completely mesmerizing.