Benjamin’s debut imagines Alice Liddell’s experiences before and particularly after Lewis Carroll immortalized her.
She was born in 1852, daughter of the dean of Christ Church College, Oxford; she died in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. But Alice’s life reached its literary apex in 1862, when on a summer afternoon Oxford mathematics don Charles Dodgson entertained the Liddell sisters with a tale of Alice falling down the rabbit’s hole, later to be the inaugural event in his hugely successful book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This well-documented afternoon and the girl’s charged relationship with Dodgson are described by the author as defining experiences for Alice, both magical and traumatic, overshadowing the subsequent 70 years. Benjamin’s adult Alice grapples with a repressed memory; her one-dimensional Dodgson is a daydreaming, stuttering loser. The relationship offered here, that of a pedophile and his victim, is too predictable and simplistic; the sexual mores of Victorian England and of Dodgson himself were more complicated. The novel becomes richer and increasingly assured after the “break,” when Dodgson is forbidden to see Alice again. She grows to maturity in Oxford’s culturally privileged enclave, is wooed by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold (barred from marrying her in part because of the unspoken, lingering scandal concerning Dodgson), then finally marries and bears three boys, two of them killed in World War I. In the end, this rigid Victorian lady, at a loss in the 20th century, recovers her memory and finally finds what her life has lacked—acceptance and self-love.
Historical fiction hampered by a 21st-century perspective on Victorian values.