"Alice I Have Been"
by Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte, 351 pages
"The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott"
by Kelly O'Connor McNees
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 342 pages
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but historical novels adore one. Even the most extensive research about famous figures can leave tantalizing gaps for fiction writers. In two new novels, Chicago-area authors Melanie Benjamin and Kelly O’Connor McNees explore specific, but largely-undocumented periods in the lives of two literary icons.
Benjamin's haunting novel, "Alice I Have Been," delves into the complex relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, his young source of inspiration for writing his children’s classics, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and “Through the Looking Glass.” Kelly O’Connor McNees’ “The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott” creates a fictional romance for the author of "Little Women," and surrounds it with authentic, biographical and period details. Though the novels are set across the ocean from each other, both cover similar time periods of the mid-to-late 1800s, and reflect the pressures of Victorian mores.
“Alice I Have Been” provides plenty of factual touchstones and well-drawn actual characters, but quickly lets the readers know that they’re descending into the rabbit-hole-like mystery of the rift between Alice’s family and Carroll. In 1863, at Christ College, Oxford, Alice’s family suddenly ended their long friendship with Carroll, the pseudonym of their mathematician neighbor, Charles Dodgson. Only a year before, on an afternoon excursion spent rowing with Alice and her sisters, Dodgson had first spun his stories about Wonderland.
In 1963, soon after another summer outing of Dodgson and the Liddell girls, something drastic occurred between the Oxford neighbors. Afterwards, Alice’s mother burned all correspondence between her daughter, who was 11 and Dodgson, who was 31. Similarly, Dodgson’s relatives likely excised the pages of Dodgson’s diary that covered this period.
As Benjamin writes in her “Note from the Author”, “…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.”
Numerous readers and fans of “Alice” have speculated about the unorthodox relationship between Dodgson and Liddell, but Benjamin deftly balances innuendo with frank descriptions of confused longing on the part of both Dodgson and young Alice. In addition to being a raconteur for children, Dodgson was a semi-professional photographer who often used girls as his subjects. He especially liked to array Alice in curious, somewhat provocative costumes such as “gypsy” rags, and the photograph inspired Benjamin to write the novel. Like the suggestive photographs, dark rumors about Alice’s relationship with Dodgson crop up during her intense courtship with Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son--a doomed-romance that may have actually happened.
Later, when Alice marries a more staid, less intellectual man, she still remains emotionally tethered to Dodgson. In a significant scene, Benjamin depicts a married, matronly Alice accepting an offer to finally visit Dodgson back at Oxford, but in the company of her three, boisterous young sons. It’s the last time they will meet before Dodgson’s death. At first the dialogue falters a bit, when Dodgson says baldly that he is not fond of little boys because “they have to grow up to be men. Men like me.” Fortunately, Alice’s insightful narration takes over:
"…(Dodgson) continued to stare at my sons as if they were noisy apparitions, and when he looked at me, his eyes clouded over, his mouth slightly open, I knew he was seeing a ghost as well; the ghost of a little brown-haired girl in a crisp white dress. A little gypsy girl. A long-forgotten dream."
"The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott" also explores the ways in which longing can inspire great literature but also get in the way of practical, daily life. During the summer of 1855, Alcott’s family was forced by lack of resources to leave their Boston home and intellectual community to move to a relative’s house in Walpole, New Hampshire. Most of the family is dispirited about the shift but their cheery mother Abba and her loyal daughters soon summon the cheery resourcefulness of the Marches in "Little Women."
Louisa was 22 at the time, already writing seriously and making some profit from publications. She surprises herself by falling in love with Joseph Singer, a fictional shop-owner with nearly identical taste in reading. The scenes with Louisa and Joseph can be compelling, but at times they tend toward the sentimental, as when Singer confesses that when he saw Louisa perform in a local theater production, he “splintered in two.”
Despite a Jane-Austen-like promise of marriage to another young woman for family security, Joseph does surprise Louisa and the reader with his evolution throughout the romance. And McNees skillfully weaves into the romance Louisa’s dedication to her writing, her responsibilities to her first and most central passion. In one key scene, Louisa is seriously considering elopement when she hears news that “The Saturday Evening Gazette,” one of the most-read papers in the country, had accepted a short story of hers and needs five more in the next two weeks. Suddenly Louisa must decide between the two “deadlines.”
"The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott" excels at showing the time period and literary milieu of 1850s New England. McNees has done impressive research, and painstakingly portrays the era’s daily toil, the demands on health, and even the styles. It’s fascinating (and sometimes maddening) to read about Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father and a well-known educational reformer and Transcendentalist philosopher who did not financially support the family well. He does, however, introduce his daughters to some of the era’s best-known thinkers and art. One of the novel’s strongest scenes occurs when Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson’s friend, recommends Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, which has just been published. After Louisa reads the transformative collection, that night she slips into a lovely, imaginative reverie about Whitman’s poetry (and even manages to summon up the work of Carl Sandburg, an admirer of Whitman’s):
“The verse was at once crude and reverent, panoramic and microscopic. With a kinetic rhythm, the poet wrote of an America Louisa scarcely knew, of bodies at work, sweating, cursing, praying; of slaves; of lovers; of buds folded in the earth.
…When she finally slept she dreamed of train whistles and the rhythmic clang of a blacksmith’s hammer, her hand clutched as if it held a pen.”
Carolyn Alessio is the recipient of a NEA fellowship in creative writing, and author of a bilingual anthology of Guatemalan children's writing, 'The Voices of Hope/Las Voces de la Esperanza.' She teaches English at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen.