Life has a strange way of turning in circles. Last week I wrote about Alice in Wonderland. It’s one of those books that hover in the back of my mind and memory, perhaps because so many quotations from it became part of my literary life from an early age. Both my parents were well-read and could use and recognise quotes from many different sources: ‘curiouser and curiouser’ and ‘cabbages and kings’ were natural childhood chants in our household but I’m not quite sure why the book insisted I wrote about it for that blog and then …
A few days ago, I needed to find something to read. I’d just finished Genevieve Cogman’s The Masked City, the second book in the Invisible Library series and decided I wanted something less ‘fantastic’ (in the nicest use of the word; it’s a great book). It was too cold to venture to the library so I was thumbing through my Kindle when I saw the title Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin. I couldn’t remember what it was about or why I had downloaded it but Fate decided that would be my selection – or maybe my brain was still processing the word ‘Alice’.
Well, there was Alice! Again! The book is about the real little girl who became Alice to a whole world – a ‘blend of fact and fiction’ according to the synopsis on amazon.com It’s fascinating and I was anxious to learn how she coped with the fame. Wanted? Unwanted? Or was it ignored by family and society?
Charles Dodgson changed not only her life but those of her family and almost everyone in their circle, including his own. Was he an inactive paedophile? I’ve always thought not, just a lonely man who felt more at home with children – and one child in particular – than his contemporaries but this book certainly suggests that Oxford society of the time believed he was and ostracised him accordingly. Benjamin portrays a sad and lonely melancholic who was banished to the fringes of the rigid Victorian society of Oxford. She also paints an unpleasant portrait of John Ruskin as a pathetic schemer who finally loses touch with reality and descends into dementia. I hadn’t realised previously that Ruskin had a role to play in the story of Alice.
And Alice? How does she cope with all this? As a well-raised, upper-class Victorian child she was ignorant of the nature of the slurs against Dodgson and herself, only aware of some dreadful sin inadvertently committed against Society but not knowing what it was. I felt sorry for her bewilderment at the loss of the friendship; the lack of empathy from her mother, and later the loss of her second love to yet more of the rigid mores of Victorian Society.
I don’t want to give too much away but if you like to peek through the keyhole to see what other lives were like and the havoc which can be wreaked by suspicion and innuendo, particularly of the famous, I would recommend this book. It is certainly thought-provoking. Benjamin skillfully blends the factual with the fictional so it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.