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Writer rescues Alice from Wonderland

CHICAGO (MCT) — Before "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1865), most children's books were like hickory sticks: Hard, boring, humorless, intended only to punish or instruct.

And then came the magical adventure story by the Oxford mathematician who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll: "Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do …," it begins, and soon Alice has tumbled down a "rabbit-hole" and rubbed shoulders with talking cats, birds, caterpillars and mock-turtles, engaged in an odd tea party and an even odder game of croquet.

The book is so fun to read, and so lacking in obvious moral or tedious life lesson, that you can practically see the stern Victorian busybodies recoiling in horror as they read it.

Carroll was actually Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a shy, quiet professor who loved puzzles and numbers games and spoke with a stammer. He based his fictional heroine on the daughter of an Oxford neighbor. But who was the real Alice?

Melanie Hauser, who takes a page from Dodgson's book and writes under the pseudonym Melanie Benjamin, wanted to find out.

The 47-year-old Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident, author of two previous novels, read everything she could find about Alice Hargreaves, nee Liddell, and imagined the rest. The result is "Alice I Have Been" (Delacorte), a new novel told from the point of view of the woman made famous by Dodgson's book and its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass" (1871).

"I didn't know there had been a real girl named Alice," Benjamin said in a recent interview. Like millions of children, she had read the Alice books when young, but wasn't captivated by them.

One day, however, Benjamin took the train into downtown Chicago to make one of her regular visits to the Art Institute of Chicago.

She wandered into a traveling exhibit titled "Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll." Dodgson, an impassioned amateur shutterbug, had repeatedly photographed Alice Liddell and her sisters. "In the photographs, Alice looks so adult," Benjamin recalled. "I wondered what had happened to her when she grew up."

The real Alice, Benjamin discovered, had a busy life. She was reportedly courted by one of Queen Victoria's sons; later married and lived in a grand home; lost two sons in World War I and, before her death in 1934, visited the United States and received an honorary degree from Columbia University. As Benjamin's narrator writes in the novel, "For eighty years I have been, at various times, a gypsy girl, a muse, a lover, a mother, a wife. But for one man, and for the world, I will always be a seven-year-old girl named Alice."

To find Alice's voice for her novel, "I looked at the photographs and then went back to the books (by Carroll)," Benjamin said. "So many people, when they read the books, get caught up in the other characters because they're so crazy. Alice is the ultimate straight man. She's unflappable."

And she has enthralled readers for generations. Alice and her companions are among the most popular fictional characters of all time. A new film version of the Alice books, directed by Tim Burton, is scheduled to be released this spring.

News that the film was on the way motivated her to finish "Alice I Have Been," said Benjamin.

Born and raised in Indianapolis, she and her husband, an executive with a telecom company, moved to the Chicago area 14 years ago. They have two sons. Alec, a junior at DePaul, is studying animation; Ben, a freshman at Indiana University, wants to be a film editor, Benjamin said.

Questions endure about Dodgson and Alice: Did the professor have an inappropriate sexual interest in the young girl? "I was never interested in portraying him as a stereotypical pedophile — or Alice as a victim," Benjamin declared. "He was not a physical man. He was in love with the idea of women but not in an earthly way — in an ethereal way.

"He was a sad man," Benjamin concluded.

"He spent the rest of his life searching for another Alice. They were two lonely people who found each other at a certain time in their lives. She grew up. He didn't."

(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.