Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

The new movie production of Alice in Wonderland produced by Tim Burton is sure to introduce a whole new generation to this classic and favorite fairy tale by Lewis Carroll. If you are anywhere near me in age -- yes, I know, older than the hills -- you will remember the golden-haired Alice made popular by Disney Studios and the wonderful illustrations of Tenniel.

But, what do you know about the real Alice. There are a couple of new books out that introduce us to Alice Pleasance Liddell, the muse behind Carroll's Alice.

For the lover of everything Victorian, The Real Alice in Wonderland, a Role Model for the Ages by C. M. Rubin is a beautiful book. Filled with cut-out vignettes, the book has the impression of a tenderly and lovingly created scrapbook. There are photos of the Liddell sisters taken by Charles Dodgson, the shy Oxford professor of mathematics and amateur photographer, snippets of letters and journals, as well as sketches and watercolors by Alice. The book is a celebration of the complete Alice story, real and imagined.
The "Real Alice in Wonderland" book is dedicated to all those who inspire the minds and souls of human beings. What does it mean to inspire? In the Victorian age, when few children escaped tradition, Alice Pleasance Liddell inspired the greatest children's story of all time, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." This book brought Alice and Lewis Carroll together for their lifetimes and forever. The story behind the story is a rich history of a very creative, curious, and magnetic young girl who grew up to become a cultural icon and one of the most celebrated women of the last 100 years. It is a story of love, tragedy, duty, courage and loyalty to family and country - that will surprise and deeply move you. It will make you think again about what it means to inspire.
But, as beautiful as this book is, there are many unanswered questions about the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas hosted A Lewis Carroll Centenary exhibit, in the Ransom Center’s Leeds Gallery in the fall of 1998 and the website has a wealth of information about Dodgson, his photography, and Alice Liddell. If you are interested in the story this is a great resource.

In an 1877 letter, Carroll tells his correspondent that he considers himself "an amateur-photographer whose special line is ‘children’." He then encourages the recipient to bring the children by to meet him "not [to] be photographed then and there (I never succeed with strangers), but to make acquaintance with the place and the artist, and to see how they relished the idea of coming, another day, to be photographed."

Carroll’s photographic style evolved from the straightforward work of his early family albums into a more adventurous and interpretive one. In an almost magical fashion, Carroll’s photography allowed the natural child and the fanciful artist to combine in the production of memorable images. In fact, Carroll has left us with some of the most profound portraits of children ever created.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the work for which Lewis Carroll is best remembered, grew out of a river outing by Carroll, his friend Robinson Duckworth, and the three young daughters of Dean Liddell - Lorina, Alice and Edith. Carroll first told the girls the story of Alice during that memorable day, July 4, 1862, and, upon their urging, expanded it into a manuscript version shortly thereafter. In November 1864 he presented his manuscript tale, "Alice’s Adventures Under Ground," to Alice Liddell.

The new historical novel by Melanie Benjamin, Alice, I Have Been, gives the reader a more nuanced view of the life of Alice, as the young girl immortalized in the classic tale, and then follows her into adulthood. Benjamin was intrigued by a photo showing the young Alice as a scantily clad "wild gypsy child" and her eyes which expressed innocence combined with a seductive quality well beyond her years.

The relationship between Liddell and Dodgson has been the source of much controversy. Many biographers have supposed that Dodgson was romantically or sexually attached to her as a child, though there has never been any direct proof for this and more benign accounts assume merely a platonic fondness.

The relationship between the Liddells and Dodgson suffered a sudden break in June 1863. There was no record of why the rift occurred, since the Liddells never openly spoke of it, and the single page in Dodgson's diary recording 27-29 June 1863 (which seems to cover the period in which it began) was missing. The only source for what happened on that day has been speculation, and generally centers on the idea that Alice Liddell was, somehow, the cause of the break. It has long been suspected that her mother disapproved of Dodgson's interest in her, seeing him as an unfit companion for an 11-year-old girl.

This mystery sets the backdrop for Benjamin's story. She explains:
As I was researching Alice's life, three major aspects seemed to speak to me—the childhood, obviously, which remains so fascinating to fans of Lewis Carroll; the possibility of romance with Prince Leopold; the fact she had three sons who fought in World War I. So concentrating on these three distinct time periods—which really span most of the Victorian era—made the most sense, and I knew that thematically, the link between them all was always going to be Wonderland, or rather—the impossibility of Wonderland, after all.

The first section was probably easiest to write, however; the third, the most difficult. This was where there were so many gaps in Alice's story; she simply went away to Cuffnells for years and years, only re-emerging near the end of her life with the auction of the book. Yet during these years, she raised three sons whom she would have to send to war; this intrusion of bigger events sometimes made it more challenging to keep Wonderland and Dodgson still in the center of the story in that third section.

To hear more from Melanie Benjamin listen to the interview at NPR Weekend edition or Fresh Air

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