Historical fanfiction, pt. II


What explains the thrill of reading (and quite possibly writing) fanfiction? I suggest a good chunk of it comes from seizing the power to revise and devise new adventures in preexisting stories, to reinvent and sometimes rebuild completely from the ground (or below) up certain beloved characters and situations. There’s a strain of historical fiction–not quite a sub-genre, more of a quirk that stops just short of adding “and Vampires” to the end of every new title–that chooses to place real, historical figures in slightly more fantastical worlds, starting by adding new or imagined emotional cadences to their well-known rosters of fact, and ends up in a borderland touching on real-person slash, and frequently with a shared element of uncomfortable salaciousness.

To continue with the theme of my last post, I recently read Melanie Benjamin’s 2010 novel,Alice I Have Been. Very similar in theme to Katie Roiphe’s Still She Haunts Me, both books take a long jump at the infamously short conclusion that Lewis Carroll (aka Charles L. Dodgson) was not only entirely motivated by Alice Liddell, his baby muse, to write his best-known works, but also truly, madly, pedophilically in love with her. The implicit “et ceteras” of that contention are spelled out, with a disconcerting degree of explicitness, in Alice I Have Been which pulls itself back from the brink of Lolita-levels of heavy petting by delving into Alice L.’s later life as former child-friend and pseudo-celebrity fictional character.

Well, I can’t say I don’t understand Benjamin’s desire to Mary Sue her way into one of the most potentially ambiguous literary relationships of the 19th century. Both her and Roiphe’s books share a kind of creepy, kind of romantic, kind of semi-feminist understanding that maybe a girl of Liddell’s temperament, intelligence and class would take more than a passive interest (viz. crushin’) in a man who treated her not as the classic Victorian “angel in the house,” but an equal. Unfortunately, Benjamin’s Alice reads more as a loving dope than a girl who could hold her own against the Queen of Hearts (even if she was just a card).

In the annals of historical inaccuracy, there’s been almost too much space allotted to poor Mr. D. I’m not totally sure what the lure of Humbert Humbertization is, but from a strictly factual perspective, it’s been pretty roundly disproven in Carroll’s case. That has little effect on the creators of further fictions, who will continue returning to the “what ifs” and devising new, queasily erotic interpretations. Aside from that, the main problem I have with Benjamin and Roiphe’s novels (jury’s still out on Lynne Truss’s Tennyson’s Gift as I’ve yet to receive it) is that… they just aren’t funny enough, or grotesque enough (apart from the contortions necessitated by creating a touching-on-pedophilic love story). Expecting fanfiction to also turn into a realistic pastiche of such an inimitable author might be more than a little much, but I don’t think it’s out of the question. Interestingly, tertiary ALice tales, like Gilbert Adair’s Alice Through the Needle’s Eye or Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, comprise a wholly separate genre from these works of, let’s face it, real-person slash. There’s something in the violent youthfulness and chaotic precision of Carroll’s own writing and thinking that is more or less completely bypassed by slotting him into a vision of Nabokovian dimensions (ie., one).

This post is too long by half (probably by two halves), but unfortunately there’s more 😦 I was recently alerted to the existence of a series of mysteries starring Charles Dodgson AND Arthur Conan Doyle (one of my other Victorian favs), which ought to see this tail getting more and more tangled…

–Isadora, Noted Carrollian

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