Monday, Oct 26, 2009: Maximum Shelf: Alice I Have Been

Delacorte: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Delacorte: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Delacorte: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Delacorte: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Editors' Note

Introducing Maximum Shelf

With this issue, Shelf Awareness introduces Maximum Shelf, a monthly feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. This edition centers on Alice I Have Been: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin, which Delacorte is publishing in January, a fictional account of the life of Alice Liddell, the basis for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl. Delacorte has helped support the issue.


Delacorte: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Books & Authors

Through the Creative Process with Melanie Benjamin

After reading Alice I Have Been, we had questions, and Melanie Benjamin was generous with her answers. First, we wanted to know what she thought of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. She read it dutifully as a child, she said, but it was too sophisticated, and she found the Tenniel illustrations "creepy." (Alice does, indeed, look like a little sullen adult.) When Benjamin re-read Alice while researching the novel, she came to appreciate it a different way. But for many, the Disney film is the touchstone, or what they remember from their childhood. We asked, was that a drawback?

As delightful as the movie is, you don't get a sense of the author, which is particularly sad in the case of an writer like Lewis Carroll whose delightfully skewed take on Victorian England comes across so clearly in the book.

Do you think people will go back to the book after reading Alice I Have Been?

I certainly hope so! I was inspired to after researching Carroll and Alice Liddell. I hope people are inspired to look at Carroll's photographs as well. I think people do love to know how and why some of the most beloved classics--film, books, music--were written.

What inspired you to write this particular story?

I had been struggling with my writing when I saw an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called "Dreaming in Pictures: the Photography of Lewis Carroll." I knew nothing of Carroll other than he was the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I certainly didn't know he was a photographer. I was struck by the images of little girls, in particular the photograph of seven-year-old Alice Liddell as the beggar girl. Until that moment, I hadn't realized that Alice Liddell was the inspiration for Alice. I wondered what happened to her and thought then it might make a good story. However, it wasn't until a few years later that a friend finally convinced me to write it. 

What was it about the photograph that struck you so forcibly?

It inspired me to wonder about the relationship between photographer and subject--her expression in it was so frank, so worldly, so adult. Much has been speculated about Alice's relationship with Charles Dodgson. To me the relationship is summed up in her eyes in the photo. Although she was seven and definitely not seductive--I would never say that--she was certainly aware that she had a powerful hold over this man, that she was important to him. Her instincts were still those of a child, but I have to believe that as she moved toward adolescence, she probably romanticized this power she knew she held. So no, she was never a victim, and I don't see him as predatory. I think their relationship was more complex than that. And, of course, that startling photograph, combined with the unflappability of Alice's voice in the books, made me wonder about the woman she became. It made me want to tell Alice's story, her entire story, not just the story of the child in the photograph.

Dodgson was not a typical adult--he was an odd duck unpopular with both faculty and students and was more comfortable with children. Alice's mother was cold and distant, typical for the era and class. Both Alice and Dodgson were lonely people, yes?

Dodgson did have some adult friendships; this is evident in his diaries and letters. However, I think it's safe to say he probably was most comfortable when in the company of children. Many say his stutter was much less evident when he was with them, and his rooms were full of toys and games.

In addition, Alice seems lonely to me because of her governess. It was well-known in the family that Miss Prickett disliked Alice the most because she tended to be more untidy and unruly than her two sisters. 

You said that the first section of the book was the easiest to write. Why?

It dealt with the photograph, the telling of "Alice" and the relationship with Dodgson. These elements were the genesis of the book. My Alice was first the old soul in the photograph; she's my inspiration (as, I firmly believe, she was Dodgson's). But the latter sections were ultimately more emotionally satisfying. To see the complex woman she became, to hear how her voice evolved from child to elderly woman, yet still kept that amazing unflappability. Alice Liddell Hargreaves lived a full, sometimes heartbreaking life--her tragic romance with Prince Leopold, eventual marriage to a man she didn't fully understand until it was perhaps too late, bearing three soldier sons who fought in World War I--yet it did not break her. I loved telling her entire story for the first time. This was always Alice's story, in my mind--not Lewis Carroll's.

Dodgson stopped taking photographs in the 1880s when the photographic process changed. Do you know why?

No one knows for sure why he stopped. He may have simply not had enough time, as more and more attention was required to keep track of the various editions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, as well as stage versions that were popular. Some think that the end of the wet collodion process of photography was another factor. As it became easier to develop photographs and less of an art form, he may have decided it was no longer as creative as it once was.

It seems that Dodgson was always trying to find Alice after their break.

Yes. Why did he feel moved to immortalize her twice, in the amazing photograph and then in literature? There was definitely something about her that I do believe he continued to seek in other girls. She was the first of his "child friends," as he called them. Despite the break between them, he touchingly kept Alice Liddell updated as to the success of "her adventures," as he always referred to the books, until the very end of his life, even as she grew up, married and had children of her own. He never seemed able to reconcile this with the little girl he once knew and immortalized. 

This is your first historical novel. Will there be others?

Happily, yes!

Delacorte: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Kate Burke Miciak: Alice's Editor She Has Been

Kate Burke Miciak, v-p and executive editor, the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, has been editing suspense books for more than 25 years and has developed a stable of franchise authors (whom she loves), but every once in a while other types of books land in her submission pile that she can't let go, like the recent Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie or Baking Cakes in Kigali. Another of these types of stories was the manuscript of Alice I Have Been, submitted by an agent from whom she has acquired suspense titles. While Miciak thought that this story had been told before, she took a look because the agent has impeccable taste. On a long car ride, she read aloud from the manuscript to her (long-suffering) husband. By the end of the first chapter, Miciak said, she knew that this was one of those titles that would work its way into her heart and stay. For a week, she obsessed about the manuscript, re-read it and then gave it to three colleagues, imploring, "Please tell me I'm wrong and that this isn't wonderful." Without exception, they loved it. Within days, Delacorte owned Alice I Have Been.

What grabbed her? The voice, Miciak said. After years of editing suspense, she knows that most structural problems can be fixed so long as the voice is true. Melanie Benajmin instantly intrigued Miciak by beginning the tale from the point of view of an elderly Alice Liddell, looking back over a long and fascinating life. (Who could possibly resist a woman who didn't want to be Alice in Wonderland?) That voice rang true; better yet, Alice's voice as both a child and a young woman, introduced later in the novel, also rang true. And the sense of looking back at a seemingly enchanted time from the perspective of old age reminded Miciak of Remains of the Day, only this looks back at the Victorian years from an Edwardian vantage point.

For Miciak, the relationship between mother and daughter--which fit the roles of women and children of the era--was instantly compelling, too. Although Alice broke free in some ways, she was terribly constrained in others--the often bizarre Victorian sensibilities at play. How does a human spirit fit in a box? The characters become so real and intriguing, Miciak continued: soon the reader wants to know all about the lives of the real woman and real author (Charles Dodgson) that the book is based on. Miciak said she did not foresee the revelation at the end, a disclosure that sprang from the full, rich, passionate and surprising life of Alice Liddell that Melanie Benjamin captured on the page, faults and all.

It was only after Miciak acquired the novel that Melanie Benjamin told her about the three photographs of Alice Liddell that first inspired her. They both realized instantly that the book needed to be structured around the three amazing images--Alice as elderly matron, as a young woman and as a child. It was exciting, Miciak said, to see how that worked structurally as well as how it worked to make us understand the woman who was the inspiration for the fictional child we all think we know so well. As the novel took this new form, it spotlighted the passionate, willful nature of Alice Liddell in a way that keeps taking the reader by surprise--it's hard not to weep when Alice finally embraces the legacy she'd fought so hard to deny. Miciak said she feels that Melanie Benjamin got this little girl--and her awful loneliness and the loneliness of her adult life.

This has been a book and author that has been a joy for Miciak to work with, she said. In-house the reactions have been passionate--from fiction lovers, from nonfiction readers, from women and men, young readers and older women. The whole experience has made Miciak feel very spoiled, she said, both an editor and a reader.

Book Brahmin: Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been, kindly answers our questions:

On your nightstand now:

I don't have books on my nightstand. I have them in little strategic piles throughout my house so that wherever I am, I have something I can reach for. I'm also one of "those" people who has several books going on at once. Currently lying in wait for me somewhere around my house: Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs; Lovely Me, the biography of Jacqueline Susann by Barbara Seaman; Breath by Tim Winton; The Home Maker by Dorothy Canfield; Everyone She Loved by Sheila Curran; and the recent reissues of all the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, which I so loved as a child.
Favorite book when you were a child: 

I have a passion for British novels and novelists, and it started as a child. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild was my favorite. My family was not artistic at all, just a working-class Midwestern family in the 1970s, and I was this strange child who dreamed of dancing and singing and acting and who lived in her head much of the time. This book showed me that girls particularly can dream of an artistic career. More important, it showed me that there are so many possibilities and that if you have a passion, keep searching until you find a way to pursue it. I loved that book.
Your top five authors: 

As I said, I was heavily influenced by British novels and novelists. So my top five British authors have to be E.M. Forster, E.M. Delafield, E.F. Benson (both the Provincial Lady series and the Mapp and Lucia series never fail to bring a smile to my face; I've re-read them all so many times!), Muriel Spark and, of course, Jane Austen. (I should add Lewis Carroll, as well. Do I have to stick to just five?!)
Book you've faked reading: 

I have to admit, it's A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Sigh. I just do not like that book. I've tried to make it all the way through but have never succeeded.
Book you're an evangelist for: 

Howards End by E.M. Forster. It's the perfect book, in my opinion: it tackles big issues but its strength lies in the small moments between people. I love it, love every single character, love all their flaws (for they all have them). It's just an innately humane book. It's also wickedly funny.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Just recently, I absolutely had to buy Shanghai Girls by Lisa See for the cover alone. Of course, I would have bought her latest anyway, but the cover is so beautiful, I want to frame it.

Favorite line from a book:

" 'No, no! The adventures first,' said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: 'explanations take such a dreadful time.' " I love this, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I want to use it daily.
Book that changed your life:

Oddly (or maybe not so oddly?) it was Moss Hart's Act One. I know that it's not exactly a truthful memoir (long before James Frey came along, it seems memoirists were taking liberties!). But it's such an inspiring book. Again, it really helped me believe that some day I could have a creative career. Like me--but under such different circumstances, of course--Moss Hart did not come from a creative or artistic family background at all. Yet he dreamed, just as I did, of a career in the arts. (I think it's safe to say I'm drawn to books by and about dreamers!) And by luck and talent and determination, he lived his dream. I re-read this book whenever I feel as if the odds are against me. It inspires me, just reading of the odds against his first theatrical success and how he overcame them. I also love that era--imagine going to a cocktail party and meeting George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, the Lunts!
Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Gone with the Wind
. My parents liked taking road trips when I was a child, and I remember being in the back seat of a station wagon on the way to Colorado, just lost in that book. I couldn't wait to see what Scarlet would do next, and I sobbed and sobbed when Melanie died. I will probably never have that absolute, breathless innocence and wonder about a work of fiction again--sometimes we get too sophisticated for our own good--and I mourn that. Also, my mother named me after Melanie Wilkes. Even if I didn't come from an artistic family, I do have a literary namesake!

Book Review

Mandahla: Alice I Have Been

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte Press, $25.00 Hardcover, 9780385344135, January 2010)

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.


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