Alice I Have Been and Dreamchild

I suppose you would have to label it historical fiction, as the novel Alice I Have Been is actually a fictionalized autobiography or memoir. Like all historical fiction, it is faithful to the letter and the spirit of the known facts while weaving dialog and situations around them to imagine a complete story. In this book Melanie Benjamin has created a compelling account of the life of Alice Liddell, the “real” Alice in Wonderland, upon whom Lewis Carroll based his two famous books. I found this story irresistible, partly because Carroll was a math teacher in his day job and since his primary mathematical interests were logic and language. But those points are actually minor ones in Benjamin’s narrative, which primarily tells the reader a story about the Liddell family and its place in the Oxford community in particular and Victorian England in general. The reader also learns a great deal about early photography and the cumbersomeness of Victorian dress. (Incidentally, we learn that Alice wasn’t blonde, despite John Tenniel’s famous illustrations.)

As a side note, it is actually the audiobook version that I am reviewing, not the print version. The reading by Samantha Eggar is convincing and compelling, with three-dimensional portrayals of all the major characters. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook, and it kept me occupied through many hours of commuting.

After reading Alice I Have Been, I figured that I had to see the 1985 Dennis Potter movie Dreamchild, which covers pretty much the same material. The atmosphere of the writing is far darker than that of Alice I Have Been — not surprising for anything written by Potter. In particular, the Muppets that portray the gryphon, the Mad Hatter, the dormouse, etc., are all quite creepy. The journalists that surround Alice in her famous visit to New York when she was in her eighties are presented very negatively, in contrast to their light-handed treatment in the book. So it’s worth seeing the movie and reading the book, as you will get two quite different perspectives. I have only one problem with Dreamchild, and it was almost enough to spoil the entire movie for me: all the actors consistently mispronounce Charles Dodgson, the real name of Lewis Carroll, by sounding the silent “g” in his last name. I suppose this shouldn’t bother me so much, but it did. In particular, it damaged the verisimilitude that’s necessary for a thorough immersion into the 19th-century world of the narrative. Fussy, fussy, you’ll say. And perhaps you’re right, but when I’ve gone through fifty years correctly pronouncing his name Dodson, it becomes jarring to hear it said wrong every time. When I see a movie, I want to be immersed in that world, not continually knocked out of it.

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV