Melanie Benjamin has written a splendid novel about "a man who fancied himself a child and a child who thought she was a woman." The story about the inspiration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass concentrates on Alice Liddell: we savor the richly imagined life of a privileged child, a young woman smitten with a prince, a society wife and mother, an elderly widow, and of course "Alice," the perennial Child. We are left both satisfied and haunted by the complex lived-in Alice and the elusive spirit and being that was the muse and accomplice in those timeless adventures we have all loved.
As this marvelous novel opens, in 1932, Alice Liddell Hargreaves is starting a letter to her son:
"But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sounds (sound?) ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.
"Only I do get tired.
"I pause, place the pen down next to the page and massage my aching hand; the joints of my fingers, in particular, are stiff and cold and ugly like knots on a tree. One does get tired of so many things, of course, when one is eighty; not the least of which is answering endless letters.
"However, I cannot say that, not to my own son."
Alice has just returned from a trip to the U.S. Feted for being the model for Lewis Carroll's Alice, she'd received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University, had radio interviews and sat for "endless photographs of me drinking tea--so tedious . . . Alice in Wonderland at a tea party! Imagine!" What she found tiresome, too, was people's disappointment in seeing an old lady instead of a child in a pinafore. Wanting to see "the real Alice," they refused to believe that the actual Alice had not been able to stop time. What kind of Wonderland was that?
During her trip, she was also often asked why she chose to sell the manuscript of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) had printed just for her. "Why would the muse part with the evidence of the author's devotion?" While pondering this question after her return, she wonders if she will allow herself to remember what really happened that summer afternoon when Wonderland was destroyed forever.
In 1859, Alice was seven years old; she and her sisters grew up veritable little princesses in the kingdom of Oxford. Her father was Dean of Christ Church and her mother was the queen of Oxford society. The girls were given painting lessons by none other than John Ruskin and taught other subjects by their governess, Prickett. What they looked forward to most eagerly, though, was excursions with a shy mathematics professor named Mr. Dodgson, who took them on picnics and walks and rows on the river Isis. "He was our playmate, our guide . . . our galley slave."
In Melanie Benjamin's evocative prose, we see that Alice as a seven-year-old is a free spirit who longs to escape the strictures of her life. She knows that Mr. Dodgson is the kind of person who would not only allow her to roll down a grassy hill but would understand her need to do so.
One day Mr. Dodgson called for Alice to take her out for A Perfect Day. He asked if he could photograph her, if she'd like to be a wild barefoot gypsy. He then gave her some clothes to change into.
With a delicate touch, not without a subtle near-eroticism, Benjamin explores Alice's desire to be wild, her need to please Dodgson, her delight in the freedom to run, to roll, to feel grass and dirt and tree bark, even the realization that she had never undressed herself before. "I dr-dreamed of you, Alice . . . I dreamed of you this way. Do you dream, Alice?" Dodgson shyly asks his gypsy girl.
Alice blossoms in Mr. Dodgson's faithful presence, and on one of their rowing expeditions with her sisters and Dodgson's friend Mr. Duckworth, Dodgson starts a tale of a little girl named Alice, a girl "brave enough to stand up to queens and kings and an assortment of odd, talkative creatures." She begs him to write it down, just for her, and he agrees.
By the time Alice is 11, she has been having conversations with her mother about becoming a lady, about marriage. She dreams, naturally, of Dodgson. Here Benjamin perfectly conveys Oxford's closed society filled with secrets and gossip, a mother who seems to be always pregnant, a governess with a crush on Dodgson, and Alice's older sister's penchant for storing things away for future use--a look, a sigh, a passing touch, information of any personal sort. In this hothouse atmosphere, Alice's dream was destined to end.
At age 23, Alice is still at Oxford, still unspoken for, when she begins a romance with Leopold, Victoria and Albert's protected, hemophiliac son. The Queen had consented to let Leopold study at Oxford, and Leopold is taken with Alice. He's a gentle, humorous, persistent suitor, and Alice returns his affections. She knows, however, that she's being watched carefully, as she had been when playing with her sisters. "Only I wasn't a little girl anymore. And my games were much more complicated."
Alice eventually marries Reginald Hargreaves. He spirits her away to the middle of the Hampshires, where no one knows her except as his wife. Soon her life is filled by domestic responsibilities: she has three sons and a large household staff to supervise. Through all of this, she still knows that in the gypsy photograph, her true heart lives on in the wild girl in a torn dress and bare, dirty feet.