Wilful Myth-Blindness 1: “Alice I Never Was”

We’re going to be doing an occasional (probably very occasional) series called “Wilful Myth-Blindness”, where we look at examples of writing that determinedly re-states the old Carroll Myths, or indeed any other tired old Myths, as if the evidence to the contrary just wasn’t there.

To kick this off, here’s Melanie Benjamin’s  2010 historical novel Alice I Have Been, a fictional account of Alice Liddell’s life, and most importantly, her relationship with  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Now don’t  get me wrong, I’m sure that – as fiction – this is a very good book. I’m sure it’s engaging and enjoyable and a credit to its author’s talent. We aren’t debating any of that.  For us the question really is – why is a book about the ‘shy Oxford Don’ and his ‘dangerous’ love for his ‘child-muse’ Alice Liddell being written at all ten years after a lot of evidence was unearthed that showed most of this was baloney?

Here’s  Ms B on that famous ‘missing page’ in Dodgson’s diary that was long supposed to have covered some indiscretion between him and the child Alice…:

“For 150 years, historians have been trying to figure out what happened. 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.”

Come on, Melanie, there’s information all over the web  (see  here and here for  a start) about ‘what happened’, and how we can now, given recent discoveries,  be fairly certain it had nothing to do with Alice Liddell, or any pedo indiscretion. Yet that is exactly the tired, old, discredited and discreditable scenario you tout in your book. So, what’s that all about? Ok, you’re writing fiction, but it ‘s fiction based on real people’s real lives, doesn’t that give you some kind of responsibility to be as accurate as you can?  To not obliquely libel the dead and defenseless ?  To basically make sure you do your research and get your facts straight? And if you don’t want to go to that trouble, then invent your own characters, because then you can make them do anything you want and no one will have a problem.

Though, having said that, personally I’m not sure I’d ever be comfortable with a book about seven year old girls getting  illicit “shivers” when old men smell their hair,  because I would be unsure of the message I was sending.

Anyhow, Melanie, congrats you’re the winner of the very first Contrariwise  La-La I’m Not Listening Wilful Myth-Blindness Award.

But I have a feeling you won’t be the last.  😉

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~ by Contrariwise on March 13, 2010.

9 Responses to “Wilful Myth-Blindness 1: “Alice I Never Was””

  1. You seem to be as fair & balanced as Fox News…from Karoline Leach’s wikipedia page: “There is no consensus about Leach’s contribution to Carroll studies” “…the Dodgson family took the unprecedented step of making a public announcement refuting all support for her findings”‘ Other researchers say her book is “hard to take seriously”. I can’t wait to read this novel. It is *still* a great mystery!

    • Oh, come on Burnette…People might be disputing Leach, but no one in their right mind is disputing the ‘cut pages in diary’ doc. It’s there, it says what it says, and that’s that. We now just simply KNOW the reason Dodgson fell out with the Liddells was basically to do with some gossip about the governess and ‘Ina’ Liddell. Nothing to do with Alice. There is a mystery, for sure, but it’s the mystery of what the gossip was actualy alleging about Dodgson and ‘Ina’, and whether or not it was true.

      But that’s good isn’t it? I mean no one wants poor Mr D to have been a pedo do they?

      Well, apart from the ones who apparently do, and still insist on writing books that ignore the new evidence.

      But to go back to your off-topic first point – has anyone ever actually proved Leach wrong? Or shown reason to seriosuly doubt her? I mean it’s easy to say ‘she can’t be taken seriously’, but without actual evidence to show why it’s just character-assassination.

      Much like calling a dead man a pedo, when he almost certainly wasn’t

      Or comparing us to Fox News 🙂

  2. Well I have bought the offending book…I am not sure it is well written. Benjamin’s Mr Dodgson is rather creepy and her Liddell sisters are made out to be little minxes vying for Dodgson’s affections.

    As I said in another post I do not believe any child in any age invites or ‘asks for’ pedophilic
    interest and this is implied in Benjamin’s text. I find her writing of this relationship very uncomfortable to read. Not a book I’d recommend.

    • The bit where 7 year-old Alice gets tingly in a ‘forbidden’ way was enough for me. You have to wonder how anyone can feel comfortable putting stuff like that out there.

      Like your comments about how we represent Mr D. Got me thinking again about that whole topic. So important that ‘defending’ him doesn’t become whitewash, or the implied defence of the worse things he’s been accused of. And so easy to end up doing either or both.

      I might do a post about it actually, when time permits.

      • Charles Dodgson was a flesh and blood human being; he was neither saint nor fiend. Like all of us he had strengths and weaknesses, moments of brilliance and failure, eccentricities and contradictions.

        He is a fascinating enough person that he doesn’t need a myth to make him interesting. Read his letters and other writings, look at his photographs and his little cartoony drawings; does his personality not show through? And when you’re done re-read those Alice books again. The work of a reclusive deviant? I don’t think so.

  3. A review of “Alice I Have Been” by Melanie Benjamin in the Sydney Morning Herald 27/3/2010

    “Alice Liddell was seven years old when Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, took the disturbing photograph that shows her dressed in rags posed in a way that could be seen as provocative: gazing into the camera with much more knowingness than might be expected of a Victorian child.
    This photograph is at the heart of Benjamin’s novel, which takes the liberties of fiction to speculate on the abrupt and mysteriously hushed-up estrangement of the Liddell family from Dodgson: the Liddell girl was “the real Alice in Wonderland”.
    This tale purports to be told by Alice herself, now an imperious and frankly snobbish elderly widow. Even if you like this kind of thing, it hasn’t been done well here. Alice’s upper-middle-class 19th century voice is peppered with contemporary Americanisms and the fictionalised representation of her relationship with Carroll is crude and prurient.
    Review by Kerryn Goldsworthy

  4. I have just received the Lewis Carroll Review and in it I finde a rave review for “Alice I have been” and a lukewarm one for Jenny Woolf’s biography. I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of Melanie Benjamin’s awful book where as I found Woolf’s fresh and insightful. What is the world coming to?

    And what is this “camps” nonsense? Camps are for boy scouts and holiday makers. I hate this notion of there being a “Morton” camp and a “Leach” camp. We are supposed to be scholars and enthusiasts of Lewis Carroll, not soldiers in some holy jihad. Charles Dodgson wasn’t a paragon of virtue, he was man with human traits like the rest of us.

  5. I was slightly astounded too to see Benjamin’s book given such a good review by a serious Carroll scholar.

    As for your comment on the ‘camps’, once again I can only applaud. But it’s not entirely fair to blame the reviewer for using the word when so many of the more traditionally-minded Carrollians seem determined to see things in those terms.

    • What amazes me is that the same critics who cane Tim Burton for reinventing Wonderland- which after all is a fictional place- will applaud the reinvention of the lives of Dodgson and Alice Liddell.

      What is it about Lewis Carroll that invites such bizarre invented histories? Does any other writer suffer such infamy?

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