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AS SHE IS PERFECTLY WELL AWARE, they look at her as they would look at a relic, with the same rude wonder they might feel for the knucklebone of St. So-and-so in its gorgeous gem-encrusted receptacle of tarnished silver. She is St. Alice, the patroness of childhood, the playmate each of them would have loved to have.

Still, to play any role is demanding. She is no relic, cannot radiate holiness or goodness, cannot cure illnesses by her mere touch. Mortal and alas too human, she has to work at the more modest and immediate tasks of living. She must demonstrate to her sister Rhoda the appreciation Rhoda is sure she deserves. Even more difficult is the task of dealing with Caryl, her son. Rhoda and Caryl have come with her to New York in order to look after her, but Alice spends considerable time and energy looking after them and worrying about them, about Caryl particularly.

Alice at 80, a novel
by David R. Slavitt
254 pages

For one thing, he drinks even more than in England, as if prohibition made him thirstier. And even when sober, he dwindles away to a respectfulness that more and more approximates that of her public admirers - which is distasteful to her. Caryl, her youngest, dimmest, and only remaining son, depends upon her financially, which may be a pity but is not a shame. She has tried to let him know that the world has not yet come to that sorry pass where a man's worth is to be judged solely by his capacity to make money.

The trip to New York is, nevertheless, an indirect result of Caryl's financial predicament, to try to establish him in some security which he clearly requires and is not able to contrive for himself. True, his wife's family has money, but what they do with it and how they may decide to tie it up are questions beyond Alice's control or interest. She can determine only what will happen to her own money, and can reckon perhaps on the likelihood that Rhoda will leave to Caryl, her only nephew, the house at Hoseyrigge. To whom else would she leave it, anyway?

But beyond the money and beyond her concern for Caryl's prospects, there is a part of Alice that enjoys these academic ceremonies, their rituals so formal and familiar. At the proper distance, even the gawking of the crowd is not intolerable. It is like a coronation, or like a wedding, and she can still close her somewhat faded blue eyes and imagine herself a young woman again, a bride, or even a girl. It is irksome that Caryl cannot even admit to himself the possibility that she might, in some measure, be enjoying herself. He is too wrapped up in his own misery, delighting in his obligation and his guilt. That is his style, these days. He feels guilt for not having been killed in the war like his two brothers. And any other guilt is congenial and even welcome, mixing in like another ingredient in one of those loathsome cocktails he enjoys. That he gives her too much credit and attributes to her an altruism she doesn't feel might be flattering, but she has no patience for it. She dislikes being misunderstood, even if she has conspired in the misunderstanding. Or all the more, because she has conspired.

She has not disabused him of the idea that she has merely consented to be made into an object here at Columbia University in the City of New York, for its centenary display of Lewis Carroll first editions, translations, and memorabilia. They even have the table for the rooms in Christ Church where Carroll wrote Alice. And Alice is here to receive from Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, honoris causa, Columbia's doctorate of letters. Hers is only a convenient neck upon which to hang the hood. She is, like that table on display, what they call an "association item."

A delicate, wispy-haired, frail-boned old lady, she has, nevertheless, a toughness and shrewdness that will not suffer nonsense and cant. She has spent an observant lifetime, much of it in a university older than this one, so she understands that deals have been made. She is well aware that this display, the celebration, and her honorary degree are not quite spontaneous. Columbia will get something out of it, one way or another, either from the Rosenbach brothers, who are the rare book and manuscript dealers, or from their client, Eldridge Johnson, of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Columbia is certifying the book as a classic, but someone will have made it worth the university's while to have put on this carnival.

On the other hand, it is not something they'd do for just any book. There is a respect and affection for this particular work, and for her too, however clumsy and bumbling. In acknowledgement of that real affection as well as its contrived display, she must endure this attention, must sit here on the platform not far from Caryl and Rhoda, and be made much of for three quarters of an hour.

Her back is militarily straight. The afternoon sunshine is of almost tropical brilliance. She is a bit dazzled by it. The robes, hoods, medallions, and staves of office are also dazzling - but are meant to be. She does not take them seriously except as playthings. There is a quality of playacting about them, all the more endearing for their studious solemnity. "'Curiouser and curiouser,' said Alice," Alice thinks. So much of life can be summed up by that line, the line given to her so long ago and from which she is still reaping benefits.

And, no doubt, still paying the costs, too. She is a woman quite different from what she might have been had her path and Carroll's never crossed. People expect her to be like the little girl in the book, full of fun and games, spontaneous and gay. They cannot imagine her bitterness at the loss of that light, her awful feeling of exclusion from Wonderland. She is straight-backed because that is the only comfortable way to bear the burden she has carried so long, the feeling of exclusion. Those whose hopes have been raised and dashed are worse off than those who were hopeless all along. If it is a wedding, then she and Carroll are the bride and groom, even if posthumously and by proxy. Regi - her late husband - would have hated it. He always hated Carroll, or Dodgson. He'd have been pained to see her going through this ceremony, even though it is in part for Caryl's benefit. And poor Regi was right, after all. His whole life lone, he resented Dodgson, and Alice thought he was being ridiculous. Now she sees that it was as if Regi could peer into the future and predict, gypsy fashion, this unimaginable event.

Her father, Dean Liddell, would have been antagonistic too, even more than Regi, having known Dodgson better and having hated him longer and at closer range. And yet, as much as her father had detested Dodgson, he had been unwilling to make a scandal. For the sake of Christ Church, and Oxford, and for the sake of his own family's reputation, he had kept silent and suffered Dodgson to remain in the college. The Dean had been a practical man. He might, therefore, have condoned her participation in this ceremony, might even have found something wonderful in it - in the strictest sense of that word. (He was often strict, and always so about words.) Worthy of wonder. Not necessarily a good thing but a remarkable thing. A wonder, for instance, that he had been the one to suggest the title to Dodgson. Alice's Adventures Under Ground became, at Dean Liddell's prompting, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. To that extent, the Dean was a collaborator.

They were all collaborators - her father, her husband, Carroll, and Alice herself. And the adventure they contrived together has only the most tenuous relation to the one the public has read. Their understanding of what happened is not the same as Alice's. If it were, she could not bear it, could not face them at all, would not be here to receive their tribute. She looks out at the sea of faces, all of them healthy, earnest, open, and honest. And she looks across the group on the platform with her, to her sister and to her son, Caryl.

What shall she tell them?

She cannot face the question, or not now. She looks at the lectern, listens, and then reaches into her purse for a handkerchief with which to dry her hands.

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