Charles Dodgson, a shy and awkward mathematics teacher in Oxford, England, spent a good deal of his free time with the Liddells: a family with three sisters who lived just across the street. At the age of 10, Alice, the youngest of the Liddell girls, requested that Professor Dodgson write down one of many the stories he told her. A few years later, he sent over "Alice's Adventures Underground," a manuscript dedicated to the real little girl he spent so much time with.
Dodgson's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published shortly thereafter, under the pen name Lewis Carroll. In the back of the book was a photograph Dodgson had taken of Alice Liddell.
It was this picture that startled Melanie Benjamin, author of a new historical novel, Alice I Have Been. At an recent exhibition of Dodgson's photographs, Benjamin was surprised to learn that the man known to millions of children as Lewis Carroll kept an extensive portrait collection of very young girls. She was startled especially by the first such portrait Dodgson had ever taken: Alice Liddell at seven.
"What fascinated me the most was the expression in the little girl's face," Benjamin tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "The expression was so worldly and frank and — dare I say — womanly." She decided to write the novel after further investigation turned up this letter from the adult Alice Liddell to her older sister:
But oh my dear, I am getting tired of being Alice in Wonderland.
Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.
"I just thought that was an amazing way to begin this story," Benjamin says, "because she was Alice in Wonderland to someone in a different way all through her life."
The letter ends there. Much else of what we know about the real Alice Liddell is similarly truncated: she says that Alice's mother burned all correspondence between her daughter and their neighbor Charles Dodgson, and Dodgson's relations deleted the sections of his diary that dealt with that part of his life.
"For 150 years, historians have been trying to figure out what happened," says Benjamin. "Alice and her family never ever spoke of this. There were rumors around Oxford, but what I take away from this, 150 years later: we still so very much want to know what happened."
Alice I Have Been is Benjamin's best guess: it features octogenarian Alice looking back at her life, and spelling out how its events have been shaped by Dodgson's book — an instant classic upon first publication.
Much of the plot of Benjamin's book may be authorly invention, but she gets full marks for one of her theories: our persistent interest in the story Carroll committed to paper. As Tim Burton's new 3-D adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland proves, we remain transfixed by Alice's adventures on the other side of the looking glass.
Alice I Have Been is a fantasy about the girl looking into the mirror, unable to leave her notorious childhood completely behind her as she grows all the way up.