'Alice' in and out of Wonderland

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Tim Burton's highly anticipated film, "Alice in Wonderland," due out Friday, is rated PG. But there's a dark side to the Lewis Carroll classic that's suitable only for mature audiences.

Here's what we know: On a boat trip down the Thames, Oxford professor and clergyman Charles L. Dodgson spun a series of tales to amuse 10-year-old Alice Liddell, whose parents were family friends. At Alice's urging, Dodgson later wrote down the tales, adopting the pen name Lewis Carroll. The books - "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," published in 1865, and its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass" - proved wildly popular, turning both Carroll and Alice into household names.

Here's where things get murky: Dodgson, a bachelor, liked to take provocative photos of young girls, and some scholars believe his relationship with "the real Alice" may have been, well, not exactly the stuff of fairy tales.

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Melanie Benjamin gives a glimpse of that story behind the story in "Alice I Have Been" (Delacorte, $25), a historical novel inspired by Liddell's life. The book is one of three to hit shelves in the weeks before the release of Burton's film.

Benjamin doesn't spell out the unknowable - the true author-muse relationship. But she nimbly imagines the plight of a young girl who has fame thrust upon her. We track Alice from the Victorian era, through romance with royalty and a marriage that produced three sons - all soldiers in World War I - to her near financial ruin. Hers is an early tale of modern celebrity, and how reality inevitably intrudes on myth.

In "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll" (St. Martin's Press, $27.99), London journalist Jenny Woolf tries to set the record straight about those pedophilia rumors. "[Carroll] was sometimes portrayed as a drearily unpopular social retard with a creepy interest in pre-pubescent girls, or, alternately, as a shy saint, too innocent and religious to realize what women were for," she writes.

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In her search for answers, she unearths new, enlightening data, including private bank account records and Liddell family letters. Woolf's sympathies lie with Carroll - she uses bank records to show his good works (supporting family, charities) and underscores how gossip fueled rumors more than proven fact. His time spent with young girls, she notes, was always with parental consent. Of course, the same could be said for Michael Jackson.

A third book, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (Collins Design, $16.99) pairs Carroll's text with new illustrations by artist Camille Rose Garcia. Garcia's style is part Edward Gorey, part Salvador Dali, with a dash of Marilyn Manson. Her Alice still wears a pinafore, but strikes a more Lady Gaga-ish pose, in heavy eyeliner and black lipstick - a Goth get-up oddly suited to the tale's unpredictable tone.

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