Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Alice I Have Been

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Alice I Have Been

by Melanie Benjamin

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2010, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2011, 368 pages

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The Origin of Lewis Carroll's classic
(From author Melanie Benjamin's website)

On the "golden afternoon" of July 4, 1862, Charles Dodgson and his friend Robinson Duckworth rowed the three Liddell girls - Ina, Alice and Edith - down the Isis (or the Thames, as it's known as it nears London)* for a picnic lunch. During the trip, Dodgson began to tell the sisters the story of a little girl who followed a rabbit down a rabbit hole.

Afterward, Alice Liddell begged him to write the story down. It took him two years, but finally in November, 1864, he presented Alice with a handwritten, leather-bound book titled Alice's Adventures Under Ground. He illustrated the book himself, and pasted a photograph of Alice at the age of seven in the back. By this time, however, he was estranged from the Liddell family, particularly Alice.

Friends of Dodgson's read the book as he was preparing it, and urged him to have it professionally published. He decided to do so, even before he sent Alice her version; eventually he expanded the original 18,000 words to 35,000, and hired John Tenniel to do the illustrations. The Alice that Tenniel depicted, with the familiar long yellow hair, does not resemble Alice Liddell, who had short brown hair.

Re-titled Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, upon its publication in 1865 the book was an immediate success with adults and children alike; supposedly it was one of Queen Victoria's favorite books. Dodgson - as Carroll - went on to publish Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in 1871. Despite his continued estrangement from Alice and her family, he kept her up-to-date with the success of "her adventures," as he always referred to them. Neither book has ever been out of print, and both have been translated the world over. They continue to inspire today; in March, 2010, a Tim Burton-directed movie of Alice in Wonderland will be released by Disney.

Above: "Drink Me", Illustration for the first chapter of Alice in Wonderland, by Sir John Tenniel, 1865

*The reference on the author's website to the Thames only being known by that name as it nears London is a little odd. Certainly, the Thames as it travels through Oxford is known locally as the Isis, but higher up the river it has, to the best of our knowledge, been known as the Thames for many a year - for example Lechlade-on-Thames, a market town since at least the 13th century, is located just a few miles downriver from the official source of the Thames close to Kemble in Gloucestershire (which is at least 50 miles upstream from Oxford). Apparently in Victorian times some geographers insisted that the upper length of the Thames should be known as the Isis but it is not at all clear that that name was in common parlance anywhere other than Oxford. Indeed, some historians suggest that the name Isis is simply a contraction of Tamesis, the Latin name for the Thames.

This article was originally published in January 2010, and has been updated for the January 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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