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Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

You may know the story of Alice in Wonderland, but do you know the story of Alice Liddell-Hargreaves? It is nearly as fascinating -- though lacking in talking dodo birds and disappearing cats.

This is the story of the real Alice -- the Alice that inspired Charles Dodgson's (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll's) famous stories Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In classic historical fiction style, Benjamin weaves together the sometimes well-documented sometimes not events of Alice's life, beginning in her youth with her friendship with Mr. Dodgson through her hinted romantic relationship with Prince Leopold to her marriage to Reginald Hargreaves to her resurgence in the world as "Alice in Wonderland all grown up".

I just love Alice, of course. I love her wit, her straightforwardness, and her cunning. I also love how deeply she feels everything from her love for various men to her complicated relationship with her mother to her love-hate relationships with her governess and siblings. It saddens me to see her downfall into a depressive state in so many ways, though the note the books ends on is much happier and makes up for much of it, I promise!

I also really liked Mr. Dodgson -- though he is in many respects the "bad guy" in the story. He is so charming and wonderful with Alice and her sisters when they are children, and has such a deep love for his peers, for Alice, for his hobbies and his work, and for storytelling. He overcomes a lot, given the suppressed events revealed at the end of Alice's story (no spoilers!!) and really tried to let his genuine love and compassion (NOT sexual attraction to a child, like many believe) come through. I wish more people gave him a chance.

Though much of it is speculative -- specifically the sections edited out of diaries or flat out burned by either Alice's mother or descendants of Charles Dodgson, and of course the emotional connections/ reactions between various characters -- this book really does highlight the ways of the time. It also does a brilliant job of giving insight into the actual life of Alice Liddell-Hargreaves beyond her seven-year-old self preserved in the classic novels. It not only gives new dimensions to the children's classic, but it humanizes the people involved in it's inception.

The tone of this book reminds me much of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde -- in that it has that Victorian setting and timbre. It also reminds me of family sagas like Downtown Abbey, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

With how much personal knowledge I have on the subject and the few short essays from the author at the back of the book, it seems that very minor tweaks were made to real events to better fit the narrative; otherwise, nearly the entire book is historically accurate. In my opinion, it could be considered non-fiction had the story either been written by Alice herself or was written other than in a first person perspective. But that is part of the charm. We get to see the ins and outs of Victorian society in Oxford at the time, as well as get a sense of how restrained Alice's wild personality really felt and how tragic many facets of her life became in the face of societal expectations.

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