Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Story Behind a Children's Classic by Melanie Benjamin

Today's guest blogger is Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been: A Novel.

Few works of literature are as universally beloved as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Now, in this spellbinding historical novel, we meet the young girl whose bright spirit sent her on an unforgettable trip down the rabbit hole–and the grown woman whose story is no less enthralling.

But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful?

Alice Liddell Hargreaves’s life has been a richly woven tapestry: As a young woman, wife, mother, and widow, she’s experienced intense passion, great privilege, and greater tragedy. But as she nears her eighty-first birthday, she knows that, to the world around her, she is and will always be only “Alice.” Her life was permanently dog-eared at one fateful moment in her tenth year–the golden summer day she urged a grown-up friend to write down one of his fanciful stories.

That story, a wild tale of rabbits, queens, and a precocious young child, becomes a sensation the world over. Its author, a shy, stuttering Oxford professor, does more than immortalize Alice–he changes her life forever. But even he cannot stop time, as much as he might like to. And as Alice’s childhood slips away, a peacetime of glittering balls and royal romances gives way to the urgent tide of war.

For Alice, the stakes could not be higher, for she is the mother of three grown sons, soldiers all. Yet even as she stands to lose everything she treasures, one part of her will always be the determined, undaunted Alice of the story, who discovered that life beyond the rabbit hole was an astonishing journey.

A love story and a literary mystery, Alice I Have Been brilliantly blends fact and fiction to capture the passionate spirit of a woman who was truly worthy of her fictional alter ego, in a world as captivating as the Wonderland only she could inspire.

"A Story Behind a Children's Classic" by Melanie Benjamin

I pride myself on thinking that I’m a pretty smart person, very well-read. But it turns out that I don’t know as much as I think I do, and I’m actually very grateful for that. A gaping hole in my knowledge of children’s literature is the main reason that I wrote ALICE I HAVE BEEN.

I knew nothing about Lewis Carroll beyond the fact that he wrote ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. That was it. So when I happened to come across an exhibit called “Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll,” I was curious enough to want to see it, because I had no idea that Lewis Carroll had ever taken a single photograph in his life.

Thank goodness for that! Because once inside this remarkable exhibit, I was completely taken aback by how little I knew about this man. For instance, I didn’t even know that Lewis Carroll was a pseudonym; his real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he was a mathematics don at Oxford University in the 1860’s. So – the man who wrote two classics of children’s literature was actually writing under a different name; he was a pioneer in the art of photography; his day job was a mathematics professor.

How intriguing!

He also was a very close friend with a little girl named Alice Liddell; he took her photograph many times; he told her a story about a little girl who fell down a rabbit hole, which she then asked him to write down.

Curiouser and curiouser!

In fact, my curiosity was piqued so much that I couldn’t stop thinking about this little girl. I couldn’t stop wondering what happened to her after she grew up; I couldn’t stop imagining what happened between her and this very mysterious mathematics professor/photographer/storyteller, because something obviously had. The photograph he took of her was so very startling; she looked at the camera – and at him - with such an adult, worldly, wise gaze for a seven-year-old.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how little I knew of this entire story, the story behind ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. And it occurred to me that other people might want to know about it, too. And so I finally just had to write it, not only to satisfy my own curiosity but to satisfy other people’s, as well.

If I had known any of this, I wouldn’t have written this book. And what a delightful, rewarding experience I would have missed! So I feel very blessed, in such a curious way, by my lack of knowledge. For it made me wonder, made me want to know more; it made me want to tell others about what I discovered, as well.
Many writers say you should write what you know. Maybe that works for them.
As for me, I decided to write about what I didn’t know. And I’m so very glad that I did.

Melanie Benjamin lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two sons, where she is working on her next historical novel. Visit her website at

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