Melanie Benjamin Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Melanie Benjamin
Photo: Deborah Feingold

Melanie Benjamin

An interview with Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin explains the back-stories to her novels, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been; and explains why she chose to write about Anne Morrow Lindbergh in The Aviator's Wife.

This page includes two interviews with author Melanie Benjamin; in the video below, she discusses The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and, in the written piece beneath, she explains the back story to her first novel, Alice I Have Been. In a separate essay, she explains why she chose to write about Anne Morrow Lindbergh in The Aviator's Wife.

Why Anne Morrow Lindbergh?
by author Melanie Benjamin

What was I thinking, writing a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh?

That is a question I asked myself every time I sat down to work on The Aviator's Wife.

For Anne Morrow Lindbergh guarded her privacy fiercely and, at times, I felt she was eluding me just to make that point! My other heroines - Alice Liddell in Alice I Have Been and Lavinia Warren Stratton in The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb - gave up their secrets easily, almost eagerly. Anne, however, did not.

But that was what attracted me to her story in the first place - because of how elusive Anne remains to this day. She is known in fragments but never completely. Some are aware of her child's horrific kidnapping and murder. Others remember her chiefly as the shy, pretty bride of the most heroic man of his time. Many women revere her as an early feminist writer.

But few know her entire story, including her major accomplishments as an aviator in her own right, her grit and determination, her inner strength. Always she seems willing to stand in the tall shadow of her husband, Charles Lindbergh. And it was her marriage that fascinated and obsessed me; this marriage between two extraordinary and very different individuals under the relentless glare of the spotlight. This operatic life they led, through dizzying heights of accomplishment and celebrity to the devastating lows of what Anne always saw as the price they paid for flying too close to the sun.

It seemed to me, as I studied her, standing always slightly behind her husband, that there was a sly smile, a gleam in her eyes that she was always suppressing; a secret strength hidden from the world and even, at times, herself. This was the Anne Morrow Lindbergh whose story I wanted to tell. It's time for Anne to step out from behind her husband's shadow once and for all and be the heroine in her own epic story.

Melanie Benjamin, 2013

A Note about Alice I Have Been
by author Melanie Benjamin

Several years ago, while wandering the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago, I stumbled upon an interesting exhibition: Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll. I knew Lewis Carroll only by his classic story Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I suppose I had always pictured him as some benign, fatherly figure - if I pictured him at all.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that the photography of Lewis Carroll (or the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, his real name) consisted primarily of images of - young girls. Rather provocatively posed young girls.

Even for the Victorians, this collection of images seemed a little unsettling. And even among these fascinating images, one photograph in particular stood out. It was a picture of a child clad in scanty rags, showing just enough skin to make me uncomfortable. But it was the eyes that haunted me; dark, glittering, they were wise, worldly, almost defiant. They were the eyes of a woman.

The caption said she was actually seven-year-old Alice Liddell, the privileged daughter of Dean Liddell of Christ Church, Oxford, where Dodgson taught mathematics; she was also the little girl who inspired the classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I wondered what happened to her, after she grew up. I wondered what happened between the two of them to result in such a startling photograph. I thought it might make an interesting story. Then I went home and promptly forgot about it. Four years later, my friend Nic was visiting me from Australia, and I took her to the Art Institute. As we sat having coffee, I told her about that earlier exhibit, remembering how I'd thought it might make a good story.

"Write it," she said.

"But I'm working on something else."

"No. This is what you should write. Write it."

"Well, maybe."

The next morning at breakfast, Nic was a little wild-eyed; she had stayed up all night researching Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell, and proceeded to tell me the tale:

In 1862, Charles Dodgson told ten-year-old Alice and her two sisters the story of a little girl who fell down a rabbit hole. Unusually - for he had told the three little girls many stories - Alice begged him to write this one down.

Dodgson told the girls these stories because he had rather an odd, intense friendship with them; he lived next door to the Deanery, their home as the family of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. In 1863, after years of this friendship, something happened that resulted in a terminal break in their relations; at the time Alice was eleven and he thirty-one. Soon after this, her mother burned all correspondence between the two. After his death, his relatives apparently cut out the pages of his diary that would have covered this period. Neither Alice nor her family ever talked publicly about Dodgson again, except late in her life after she was forced to sell her original handwritten copy of Alice in order to save her beloved home. It was only then that she seemed able to embrace her role in the creation of this timeless classic.

My friend was correct. This was the story I had to write. I'm no historian, no scholar of Lewis Carroll; there are plenty of those, and this is not his story. I'm a novelist, and this is Alice 's story. As I dug for further details, I discovered that Alice Liddell's childhood had been somewhat documented (with the exception of all that missing correspondence), and even fictionalized. There had been a novel, in 2001, by Katie Roiphe called Still She Haunts Me, about the years leading up to the break between Dodgson and Alice; also a 1985 film, Dreamchild, that dealt, somewhat fantastically, with the same period of time. Also two slim biographies, one a children's book, the other long out of print. But no one told the story entirely from Alice's point of view, and her later years were always glossed over or omitted entirely.

Yet these were the years that most intrigued me; as I continued my research, I found out she may have had a broken romance with Prince Leopold of England but ended up marrying another man (while wearing a diamond brooch from the Prince on her wedding dress); as a mother, she suffered heartbreak during World War I; widowed, she almost descended into anonymous, genteel poverty; finally, she enjoyed triumph and fame just before she died.

Dodgson, meanwhile, went on to publish the Alice books - and, of course, photograph many little girls - but it was as if he was always searching for a replacement for his original "child friend." He was heartbreakingly unable to reconcile the adult Alice with the child he had loved when they met, once more, near the end of his life.

This was the story, then, that I had to write: Alice 's adventures after she left Wonderland. And it appeared to me that it all came down to what happened between man and child one seemingly lovely summer afternoon, before this mysterious break. It must always be remembered that this is a work of fiction, not biography. I did not alter known facts about Alice's life, with the exception of the last photograph, when she was a young woman, taken by Dodgson; in reality, this occurred when Alice was eighteen, prior to Prince Leopold's time at Oxford. Still, I strove to capture what I felt must have been the emotional impact of that moment, whether it occurred when she was eighteen or twenty-three. I sometimes leaned on the side of documented gossip and speculation - for example, there are some who believe Prince Leopold was actually interested in Alice 's sister Edith. I couldn't ignore the fact, however, that Alice really did wear the brooch he gave her on her wedding dress. And that the Prince named his first daughter Alice, while she named her second son Leopold.

Alice did, indeed, marry a man named Reginald Hargreaves, and lived the rest of her life on a country estate called Cuffnells, which, sadly, has since been torn down. Near the end of her life she did travel to Columbia University in New York, where she received an honorary doctorate and met another figure from children's literature, Peter Llewelyn-Davies, who was immortalized as Peter Pan, but who later in life committed suicide. The greatest liberty I have taken is in depicting Alice Liddell's relationship with John Ruskin, the eminent art and social critic of the Victorian age. While Ruskin's circumstances are historically accurate - his scandalous marriage, his tragic relationship with a young girl, Rose La Touche - I deliberately made him a more important figure in Alice 's life than he probably was. Again, there is some fact on which to base this. It's obvious he and Alice knew each other socially during his years as the Slade Professor of Art at Oxford. He gave her and her sisters art lessons. And he himself described more than one occasion when he was bewitched by the young Alice in his autobiography, Praeterita.

Ah, but what about that break? What really happened that summer afternoon to lead to such a permanent fracture between Dodgson and Alice?

This was my greatest gift, as a novelist. Because no one - not Alice, not Dodgson, not her mother, not her sisters - ever publicly spoke of it, except for a tantalizingly vague reference in a letter to Alice from her sister Ina, near the end of their lives. There were rumors, of course, for Oxford was a great place for gossip. But that is one major event in her life - perhaps the most important event - that remains, even today, pure speculation. However, the most important fact that endures is a piece of fiction. A slim volume, a classic of literature still today - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. That is what remains; that is, I think, what Alice herself would have hoped remained.

Melanie Benjamin, 2011

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Mistress of the Ritz jacket The Girls in the Picture jacket The Swans of Fifth Avenue jacket The Aviator's Wife jacket
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