"Before there was reality, there was Wonderland." That quote lies at the heart of Melanie Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been as Alice Liddell, the young princess of Oxford, tells of her strange and enigmatic relationship with Lewis Carroll, the mathematics teacher Mr. Dodgson and the author of Alice in Wonderland. Here in Oxford in 1859, among the men in their long academic robes and the women in their voluminous skirts, everyone skims and floats “like puffs of cotton in the air.”
This is also where the enigmatic, solitary Mr. Dodgson visits the Deanery to photograph Ina, Alice, and Edith, the three lovely daughters of Dean Liddell of Christ Church. Living a world of privilege and sheltered from most of the gossip of the time, Alice in particular rebels against the strict rules of her mother, who sees Mr. Dodgson as a nuisance always photographing the girls with his “infernal camera” while taking them on outings, picnics and boating.
Alice is only to willing to be photographed by this mercurial man with his kind sad face, his soft cheeks, long eyelashes, and his bright deep blue eyes that always seem to be following her. One afternoon in the garden at the back of the Deanery, Mr. Dodgson dresses Alice up for a photograph like a seven-year-old beggar girl, a "wild gypsy." As his gloved hand gently strokes her cheek and tugs the gypsy dress down over her shoulders, this almost sexual encounter is also tinged with a certain inescapable innocence.
These are Alice’s learning years. She blossoms and truly blooms under the sunshine of Mr. Dodgson’s faithful presence and becomes ever more skilled, manipulating the circumstances of their trysts as she leans her head against his shoulder in order to cheer the perpetually sad man.
He in turn tells her stories of a white rabbit and a pocketwatch and a girl named Alice tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank.
Time stands still for no one, especially for Alice as her life inevitably steamrolls forward. Soon enough the author is beautifully unfolding the events of Alice’s adult years: the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales and Alice’s unexpected romance with His Royal Highness, the
poetic, hemophiliac Prince Leopold who insinuates himself into Alice’s life and heart.
Alice’s memories of her relationship with Mr. Dodgson form the crux of the novel, along with the soul of a girl who lives on with her torn dress, bare feet, and her eyes a triumphant gleam, despite the kindness in Mr. Dodgson’s eyes. But most illuminating - and heartwrenching - are the years after the Victorian
Era bazaars and lawn games, the dancing and the music, where love and romance were always in the air,
as Alice now lives a quiet, frugal life at Cuffnells with her husband, Rex, the grand countryhouse a fading relic, its rooms echoing the laughter, parties, and gaiety of the past.
The horrors of the Great War leave Alice stunned, alone, and financially decimated.
She is forced to part with the evidence of her artist’s devotion, the original manuscript of Alice Underground. Still, throughout all her hardships, Alice remains steadfast to her muddled memories. She’s still the little girl who wants to believe in fairy tales, the little tattered gypsy who remembers the long-forgotten dreams as they magically reappear throughout her looking-glass life.