I hope that 2010 fulfills all your dreams and that you find the inspiration to challenge yourself to read lots of books.
Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been will join us tomorrow to discuss her book and how she came up with the idea, how she creates her characters and so much more. Few works of literature are as universally beloved as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Now, in this spellbinding historical novel, we meet the young girl whose bright spirit sent her on an unforgettable trip down the rabbit hole–and the grown woman whose story is no less enthralling.
For those visiting today we are offering a sneak peak into the historical novel Alice I Have Been.
Off with their–legs. That was the curious notion I had as a child.
That certain people–queens, generally–lost their heads was understood to be a historical fact.
But in my world, legs were missing with alarming regularity as well. The men in their long academic robes, the women in their voluminous skirts; everyone skimming, floating, like puffs of cotton in the air–that is the first, and most vivid, memory of my childhood.
I knew, of course, that children possessed legs; yet the legs seemed to disappear as their owners grew up, and if I never questioned the logic of this it must be because, even then, I understood that Oxford was a kingdom unto itself. It was different from, and superior to, the rest of the globe (which of course meant Britain, for those were the years when the sun never set on Victoria’s empire), complete with its own rules, language, and even time; all the clocks in Oxford were set five minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Naturally, it follows that if Oxford was its own kingdom, then I was its princess–one of three, to be precise–because my mother was, as everyone knew, its queen.
Remarkable for a woman who bore ten children–one would have assumed she was perpetually in a state of bearing a child, or waiting for a child, or getting over a child–Mamma made certain that the Deanery was the social center of Christ Church, which was of course the social center of Oxford. No one dared give a party or a bazaar or a dance without her approval. At times she even graciously made room for other queens; Victoria herself once stayed with us, although not even her plump, imperious personage intimidated Mamma.
Papa was merely the Dean of Christ Church, responsible for the education and religious upbringing of hundreds of gentlemen, including the sons of that same queen. Even when I was so young that the only place I could look was up, for I was all too well acquainted with the ground, I knew that he was quite important.
Instructors would bow to him, scholars would pale in his presence, princes deferred to him; entire halls full of young men would rise upon his entrance, as well as his departure. While at home he could scarcely make himself heard; he was entirely eclipsed by Mamma, and entirely happy to be so. There was even a silly rhyme that made the rounds of Christ Church in those days–I am the Dean, and this is Mrs. Liddell She plays the first, and I the second fiddle
This did not reach my ears, however, until much later. For as the daughter of the Dean and Mrs. Liddell, I was sheltered, at least for a time, from most of the gossip that was the chief occupation of some of the finest scholarly minds of the age.
Privileged was how I would describe my early years, if only because I was told that they were such. I knew no life before Oxford, although Papa was, even then, a rising academic; domestic chaplain to Prince Albert, headmaster of the Westminster School in London. I was baptized in the Abbey, the fourth child, second daughter.
Ina was not baptized in the Abbey. I may have reminded her of this with some regularity. While we still lived in London, an older brother, Arthur, died of scarlet fever. Papa had difficulty speaking of him later; his kind face, with the aristocratic nose and decided chin (which I, unfortunately, inherited) would grow quizzical, his brow furrowing, as if he–such a learned man–could not understand the simplest, most frequently asked question of all:
I don’t recall that Mamma ever spoke of it one way or another.
Although surely that can’t be true.
When I was scarcely four–in 1856–we arrived in Oxford, upon Papa’s appointment as Dean of Christ Church. By then the family included Harry, the eldest; followed by Lorina, myself, and Edith–the three princesses. Ina was three years older than I, Edith two years younger. All of us–along with servants, fine china, heirloom silver, imported linens, and all the other necessities of a distinguished household–moved into the Deanery, which Papa had arranged to be enlarged and remodeled to accommodate our growing family. Even so, it was never quite large enough for Mamma’s ambitions.
It was in this world, this Oxford, that my first memories were made. It was a peculiar world for a little girl, in many ways; there were few children my age, as all the students and dons at the time were supposed to be celibate. Only the deans, the senior members of the college, were allowed to marry, and most of them were of an age where children weren’t possible. Papa was rather the exception to the rule, and I believe that he was proud of the fact.
Perhaps that was why there were so many of us.
Each night, after I was snug in bed, Old Tom, the bell in the imposing tower that was the centerpiece of Christ Church, tolled one hundred and one times (signifying the original number of students at the college); even as I struggled to remain awake for the first chime, I rarely made it all the way through to the end.
Our home, the Deanery, was opposite the tower, our front entrance part of the pale stone fortress of buildings bordering the flat green Quad; we also had a private entrance opening up to the back garden. Quite literally, we lived among the students; I remember walking with Ina and Edith–three little maids all in a row, always dressed exactly alike, crisp white frocks in summer, rich velvets in winter–in the Quad with our governess, Miss Prickett, as young men removed their caps and bowed low, exaggeratedly, at our approach.
Excerpted from Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
Copyright © 2010 by Melanie Benjamin. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.