What child hasn’t grown up with Lewis Carroll’s beloved character Alice, who so curiously explored Wonderland? Whether it was the original books or Disney’s animated film, Alice in Wonderland is a character that almost everyone knows about.
However, not many people know that she was based on a real woman, named Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, England and that her family was good friends with Charles Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll.
Melanie Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been allows Alice, who in the beginning is an 80-something year old woman, to speak in her own voice. As a child, she was condemned for being a feisty tomboy, and readers get a glimpse of how restricted that time period was for a woman who was different. Benjamin’s Alice is curious and has a realistic childlike air to her instead of being a flat one-dimensional character. As Alice grows up and realizes that she can’t escape her fictional counterpart, the readers are sympathetic and are allowed to share her grief and her triumphs thanks to Benjamin’s compelling writing style.
The author is also not afraid of controversy, either—there’s some suggestive imagery in the text that will make the reader question what Dodgson’s motives are, especially after he dresses Alice up as a half-naked beggar girl for one of his photography shoots. Benjamin leaves it up for the reader to decide, which can be frustrating but given that no one knows what he was thinking in real life, is oddly fitting.
Although this is an entertaining historical fiction novel, this isn’t just a snapshot look at Victorian life, it’s Benjamin’s way of playing with the idea that powerful and popular stories can not only capture their readers in a “looking glass,” but their muses as well.