Down the Rabbit Hole with Historical FictionOctober 11, 2011
So … I’ve always kind of hated historical fiction. I just don’t think it’s fair to assign make-believe ideas and events to real people’s lives — I know I’d like to be judged by what I do, say and write instead of by what people imagine about me. Besides, there’s so much well-written history that reads like fiction but creates a more accurate picture of the historical figures involved, and that’s the image I want to hang on to.
But I tried to give the genre another chance with Melanie Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been. It’s a fictionalized account of the real-life “friendship” between Lewis Carroll (a pen name), author of Alice in Wonderland, and the young girl he dedicated his book to. I put friendship in quotes, because there’s room (lots of room) for debate over whether their dynamic was pure or perverse. Both sides have strong arguments, and Benjamin pretty much goes with the latter … partly because that makes the better story.
My problem with that is that there are also arguments for Carroll’s innocence — arguments that Benjamin herself makes in essays in the back of the book. The most shocking aspects of her story never happened in reality (or, at least, we don’t have strong evidence that they did), but her implications still effect our perception of Carroll, and I don’t think that’s fair.
If I’m reading for fun, I’ll skip historical fiction in favor of a good history (like Jane Dunn’s Elizabeth and Mary) or a good memoir (like Patti Smith’s Just Kids). But the reasons I don’t like Alice I Have Been for my own reading makes it perfect book club material — it’s a pretty enchanting story, and the fact-versus-fiction debate would make a fantastic group discussion.