My recent book review in the Sunday Dallas Morning News:

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Think of Alice in Wonderland, and you probably see a pinafored little girl with long, pale hair, the image from Sir John Tenniel’s classic illustrations.

But the real Alice was born in the mid-19th century, a daughter of the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford University. As a child, Alice Pleasance Liddell wore her hair in a short, dark bob. In a famous photograph taken by a family friend, she is dressed as a ragged Gypsy girl, and her direct gaze is disconcerting: both innocent and worldly wise.

The family friend who took that picture was Charles L. Dodgson, the Oxford mathematics don and shy, lonely bachelor who became a surrogate uncle to Alice and her sisters. Their relationship is at the heart of Melanie Benjamin’s fine historical novel, Alice I Have Been (Delacorte, $25).

After 145 years, Dodgson’s tale of a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole and into a world of wonder is still an object of literary fascination. Just one month ago, a collector paid $115,000 at auction for a red morocco-bound presentation edition of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Dodgson gave the book to Alice Liddell, and she inscribed her name in it.

In fact, Dodgson – who became famous as Lewis Carroll – sent his muse a copy of every new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1872 sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Yet he became mysteriously estranged from the Liddells around the time he wrote the fantasy he originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

“There was no escaping him,” the fictional Alice Liddell says of Dodgson in Alice I Have Been. With the 1865 publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “our lives were seemingly bound together for eternity. … Alice in Wonderland. I would never be anything but.”

In Alice I Have Been, Benjamin re-creates a vanished Victorian world among the dreaming spires of Oxford, a scholarly kingdom where Alice and her sisters grew up in the privileged social nexus of the deanery. “Mr. Dodgson,” who lives just across the way, is awkward among adults but at ease when he takes his little friends, the Liddell sisters, on picnics and outings.

The don is a stuttering child at heart, and no one questions his kindness to the dean’s children. But young Alice grows emotionally attached to Dodgson, who makes her feel special, valued in a way that her busy parents never do.

Dodgson’s affection for Alice, meanwhile, is a pure one. Or is it? When Alice is 11, there are muted but devastating repercussions for all. As Alice’s childhood ends, so does her family’s friendship with Dodgson.

Still, the don keeps his promise and writes the fantasy he had first told the Liddell girls on an idyllic summer outing. A single, privately printed copy goes to Alice; later, Dodgson rewrites Alice for publication, and it is a sensation. Alice – who enters a doomed romance with Queen Victoria’s youngest son – must keep the secrets of her unconventional childhood throughout her very conventional life.

Benjamin artfully weaves a story – much of it historical fact, embellished with fiction – remembered from the perspective of Alice in 1932. By then she is a widow of 80 whose one surviving son wants to exploit his mother’s status as the “real Alice.”

“But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland,” the “real Alice” thinks. “Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.”

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

PLAN YOUR LIFE: Melanie Benjamin will speak at 7 p.m. March 19 during Late Night at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St . Tickets, free with museum admission, can be reserved at DallasMuseumof Art.org/ALL or 214-922-1818.

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