The Melancholy of Alice

Posted on March 20, 2010. Filed under: Books, Children's, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , |

I keep posting later and later, but it’s only because things have been busy taking care of the house and my mother. In any event, I won’t harp on it. Today I wanted to review Alice I Have Been as I finished reading it last night.

Melanie Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been is a haunting book. Perhaps my view on it won’t be the same as those who have read it, but it just seemed a very tragic story. I read the author’s notes on the book, and Benjamin explains that while it is only a novel she did use as much of the remaining documented materials of Alice Liddell Hargreaves’s life to reconstruct this tale.

Looking at it from that point of view, I almost pity poor Alice.

That’s not to say, however, that the story was poorly written. Benjamin’s book is a delight to read, full of witty repartee and turns of phrase common to the Victorian era when Alice was born. The pacing is excellent, and the story draws the reader in with little effort and keeps you gripped in the questions it presents throughout.

The tale starts with a portrait of an aged Alice, famous for her experience in Wonderland and virtually unknown for her more scandalous exploits. At 81, she’s growing older and tired of being known as Alice in Wonderland. It’s been years since she has spoken to anyone who was even familiar with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the man the rest of the world knows as Lewis Carroll. And no one even remembers the circumstances under which 11-year-old Alice was forced to part with Charles Dodgson. Even Alice herself is quite fuzzy on the scandal.

As she rereads a particular letter from her deceased older sister Ina, Alice’s memories flood her mind–and the book’s pages–as she begins to relive those formative younger years. What’s so fascinating is not the story of Alice in Wonderland as so many believe but rather the background of this woman who survived many of her family to live out her days, widowed with only one, somewhat irresponsible, son for comfort.

But Alice I Have Been reveals the shocking and scandalous events of Alice Liddell’s life in a splash of vibrant fiction. From the recollection of Dodgson’s photo of her as a ‘gypsy girl’ clothed in rags to the events leading to a dangerous kiss on a train, Alice retraces her childhood, recalling how boldly she took what she wanted–from Ina, her mother, and Mr. Dodgson himself.

The book is divided into three parts, and the story of Alice and Dodgson ends with the first part. In the second, we read of her romance with Prince Leopold, son to Queen Victoria. Leopold, or Leo as we know Alice addresses him, is infatuated with the Alice from Lewis Carroll’s tales, which by now have sold well in Britain. Pursuing the second daughter of the Liddell family, he wins her heart and brings in help in the form of old Liddell family friends to try and persuade the queen to approve the match.

When the queen receives word of the scandal with Mr. Dodgson, however, she’s most displeased. In one of the greatest tragedies of her life, Alice loses the two people closest to her. Concluding the second portion of the novel, we read in the third about her marriage to Reginald Hargreaves, who, according to Alice, has plucked her after she ripened too much and fell off the tree. It’s a poor description to be sure, and Alice spares little love for the husband she wouldn’t have chosen for herself.

What I find most interesting in this novel is how Alice is portrayed. Certainly there are other authors out there who have documented her life, and Benjamin’s work is only fiction after all. But the Alice in the story is such a dramatic contrast from the Alice in Carroll’s work. Instead of being the constant, logical, happy-go-lucky child, Alice is a tired, broken-hearted, depressed woman whose life has simply passed her by.

It’s truly haunting because of the opportunities she seemed to miss, either through her own doing or by the actions and interference of others. I both sympathized with and chastised Alice as she made decisions and tried to accomplish things that were beyond her reach. I wonder if Benjamin’s tale is accurate enough to fill in the blanks of this remarkable woman’s life.

Overall, this is definitely a keeper. I really enjoyed the story. Alice enthralled and entertained me, but she also challenged and intrigued me. I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be a joy to sit down with her (were that possible) and hear her story from her own lips.

But the intriguing thing about Alice? Of those few possessions remaining, none truly tell her story. What remains, then? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And as Benjamin suggests in the end of the book: that might be exactly as Alice Liddell Hargreaves intended it.

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The Alice Craze

Posted on March 13, 2010. Filed under: Books, Classics, Fairy Tales, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , |

Yes, I’m adding to it, but I haven’t seen the movie. I’m still debating on it. A friend asked me to go with him, and I’m thinking of saying yes if I can convince him to pay for my ticket. 😉 Poor unemployed girl needs someone else to help her out. Haha.

Image Credit: The Victorian Web

I know everyone’s all up in arms over Burton’s adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but I’ve never been a huge Burton fan. Sure, he’s a great director, but I’m not one of the people who makes plans to see his next hit movie each time it rolls into theaters.

So all that is to say: I’m not writing this because of the movie.

I am writing this because of Stacy and Alice I Have Been. Like a lot of people, I’ve seen the Disney adaptation that pulls elements of Wonderland and its sort-of sequel Through the Looking-Glass and then twists them in the way only Disney can. I didn’t really like the movie as a kid, so I never bothered to read the book.

Well, I’m here to admit it. I should have read the books before. After reading Wonderland and Looking-Glass, I wanted to kick myself for not getting a perspective on this world as a child. What would my opinion have been reading this book when I was 7?

Would I have, like with so many other tales–both book and film,–fallen into my own rabbit hole of fantasy and adventure? I was disappointed when I found no wardrobes to peek in after Narnia. I pretended to be whisked off to an English manor home from India where all manner of mysteries and secrets waited to be uncovered after The Secret Garden. Would I have searched out holes in the ground to fall into after Wonderland or attempted to press through mirrors after Looking-Glass?

It’s really a pity I’ll never know.

However, I do know that I enjoy Lewis Carroll’s tales, especially now that I’ve read them in preparation for Melanie Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been. I’m reading Benjamin’s book now, and it’s already fascinating after one chapter. But I’m here to speak to my take on Carroll. It’s one classic I really, truly, thoroughly enjoyed.

Aside from reading the notes in the Modern Library Classics edition of the book I got, I also read every footnote and the poems and letter thrown in at beginning and end for more perspective on Carroll. It’s intriguing because many scholars speculate that Carroll was some sort of Victorian pedophile with his collection of child friends whom he took on boat rides and told fantastical stories to. I think that’s a shame.

Carroll was a don at Christ Church, Oxford, where he taught mathematics. During his years at the school, he met the new Dean, a Mr. Liddell whose three daughters became Carroll’s young friends. The middle daughter was Alice Liddell, and as most of us can guess: the rest is history.

I love speculation as much as the next person, but really? I have no idea whether Carroll was attempting to court Alice in her early days at Oxford. It makes for a great story, though, especially considering he was 30 to her 7 years old, and he was required to remain celibate as a don.

I can hear the old gossips of Victorian Oxford now.

“Where is that young man headed?”

“Why, don’t you know? That’s Mr. Dodgson. Of course, he’s off to the Deanery to see the Liddell girls.”

“You don’t say! But truly he couldn’t be off to see them, could he? Surely you mean he’s off to counsel with the Dean. I hear he teaches mathematics, and you know those young men can grow boisterous–”

“No, I’m certain he goes to see the Liddell girls. Louisa was telling me yesterday he actually takes them to the field and plays with them, of all the–”

Well, you can see where that conversation was headed. 😉 I do believe we haven’t deviated much from those old hens and their tales of impropriety.

If you’re like me and you read the Alice tales, you’ll be enthralled by the vivid world of Carroll’s creation. But more than that I found myself immersed in a world where sense doesn’t have to make sense and nonsense more often than not has a thread of sense in it. Logic is illogic, and if I’m not careful, I’ll begin to sound like Big Brother and make mathematical errors that Carroll would have most likely corrected in his classes.

The lack of plot in both Alice books would normally make me shudder and run in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t. Instead, I embraced the Wonderland and Looking-Glass worlds with arms wide open, not expecting any sense to be found. And I was delighted because Carroll changed my opinion, perhaps not as intended but certainly in a good way, through his Alice.

As I watched Alice make her way through this zany new world, I noticed something intriguing. Originally I cheered the little girl in her white pinafore on because I felt she was the only one making sense in a strange land. But my opinion flip-flopped. I still cheered her on, but it was towards finding the peculiar formula of illogic that made the Looking-Glass world go round rather than towards finding her way back home again. And the other characters with their obvious misinterpretations and ridiculous rules became more and more sensible to me.

I may be the only one who feels that way, but it truly is what endeared the Alice tales to me. By changing my perspective in a world so far from normal, Carroll challenged me. And I always love a challenge.

I could go on and on. I gained quite a bit of insight from this simple children’s tale. But I’m already overdoing it. So what’s your take on the Alice craze? Enlighten me!

-Rae-

P.S. Sorry for the gigantic photo – for some reason it didn’t want to edit!

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Shameless About A Few Of My Favorite Things

Posted on March 8, 2010. Filed under: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance | Tags: , , , , , , , |

I have a wee bit of news before I get into the meat of my post for the day.

First, I have to thank Stacy of The Cat’s Meow for sending me Alice I Have Been. I follow Stacy’s blog, and through that, I won a copy of this book by Melanie Benjamin. Benjamin’s debut novel tells the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Carroll was a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he shows up as a character in Benjamin’s book. Ironically enough, Melanie Benjamin is also a pseudonym for author Melanie Hauser, who has written two contemporary novels.

Because I’ve never actually read Carroll’s classic, I went out and bought it today. So now I own my own copy of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I plan to begin reading it tonight.

That said, I finished reading Kathy Tyers’ Crown of Fire tonight, so I’m officially done with that particular series. It’s lovely and well done, but I believe I’ve had my fill of sci-fi for a while. Although I have learned that I tend to increase my book list by two books for each book I finish reading. That, of course, means I won’t be finishing my book list anytime soon. I believe it’s numbering upwards of 40 books now. Granted, I’ve read some, but still–it’s a little excessive to have that many books piled up against the wall of your bedroom.

All right, onto something more interesting!

A Few Of My Favorite Things:

I’m a romance fan. I have been ever since I read my first romance novel back in middle school. Not that I was really emotionally ready for an actual romance novel back then, but my hormones being what they were, I felt like I could take on the world. So I ditched my childish stories that wouldn’t even classify as YA or teen novels in today’s bookstores and began searching for something more along my reading level.

I found Lori Wick. To elaborate, I was searching through my church’s library for some new material because the church library doubled as a school library for the private Christian academy I attended. I’m pretty sure I was supposed to be writing a book report (those were the days!) on a book of my choice, so I began looking through the library for something interesting to read. It might have been seventh or eighth grade, but I was attracted to the adult books.

The book I picked was a standalone book of Wick’s titled The Princess, a heartwarming tale of a couple set in a country very much like the United States or England but very much a made-up country. Let me clarify that by saying that this was not anything like sci-fi or fantasy. Wick just chose to create her own country that could have been an island nation set off from the Western United States. In fact, her character mentions visiting New York on a school trip, so perhaps it’s set to the east. Either way, it’s a ‘what-if’ type of story.

Pendaran is a humble kingdom where the prince or princess is required to marry before he or she can assume the throne. There is, of course, a cut-off date for marriage; in this particular story, Prince Nikolai is a widower, having lost his wife two years after marrying her. He mourns her several years after her death.

Unfortunately for Nikolai, the time is rapidly approaching for the fated birthday by which he must be married. Unwilling to go searching for a princess of his own, Nikolai entrusts the task of finding a suitable woman to his parents. They make a request of a good friend to send out feelers among his own web of friends, and lo and behold, they find Shelby Parker.

The daughter of a deaf father and a very capable mother, Shelby knows sign language and regularly translates for her father, who gives motivational speeches about disabilities. Shelby has one brother who is in college, graduated with a nursing degree, leads a ladies’ Bible study, and is an all-around sweetheart.

Running out of time and unable to pursue the topic under any normal circumstances, the king and queen make a decision to approach Shelby directly. After a bit of time and a few letters pass between Shelby and Nikolai, Shelby decides to accept this unusual proposal of marriage. In a very quiet ceremony, the two wed, and Shelby begins a totally new life as princess of Pendaran.

Meanwhile Nikolai, overwhelmed by his grief and the newness of another woman, retreats in the only way he knows how: by making himself unavailable and taking on added appointments to his already busy schedule. The result? A comic moment in the kitchen of the couple’s suite in the palace a few weeks after their marriage.

When he doesn’t even recognize his own wife dining in the kitchen, Nikolai realizes his own grief has driven him too far from someone he should be making an effort with. Thus, he begins attempting to court his lovely, red-headed wife, whose innocence is both touching and refreshing.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but Shelby and Nikolai suffer their fair share of heartache and tragedy before realizing that love can transcend loss and lack of trust.

After having read quite a few romances in my day, I’ll admit it’s the picture-perfect formulaic romance. It follows the regular pattern from a Christian point of view, but it was the first romance novel I ever read, and as such, I have a certain fondness for the book. I’ve read it multiple times over the years, and I’ll probably read it again.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I know this is the happy ending story, but I usually pick up The Princess when I’m feeling a little down and don’t want to read anything new. I crave the comfort of an old friend, and this is, indeed, an old friend.

What about you? Do you have any old friend books you return to time and time again for comfort or escape? Does it change depending on your mood? I know mine certainly does. Let me know what you think. And, of course, I don’t mind if you disagree with me on The Princess; it is, after all, targeted to a rather limited audience!

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