Carroll's life and letters; Benchley novel

Anne Clark is writing in a happily escapist mood, offering us The Real Alice (Stein & Day, $17.95) and transporting us to a time and place where three little Victorian girls glide down the river ''all in the golden afternoon.''

I found the beginning of this book delightful. I liked learning more about Alice Pleasance Liddell, and how she came to inspire Lewis Carroll's storybooks; I enjoyed knowing what it was like to grow up in ancient academic surroundings (her father was Dean Farrell, and the family home was first the Dean's Yard, Westminster, and then the Deanery, Christ's Church, Oxford).

But unfortunately the Victorians have brainwashed the author, and as soon as Alice is grown up (about halfway through the book) and friends and relatives begin dying off or marrying off, Miss Clark becomes obsessed with weddings and funerals. For instance, when Alice marries (not, alas, her true love, Queen Victoria's youngest son, Prince Leopold George Duncan Albert, but Reginald Hargreaves), the author reprints the complete list of wedding presents. And it's a long one.

Happily we can find all the charm of Lewis Carroll and hear his own whimsical voice in a new edition of his letters, The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (edited by Morton N. Cohen and published in Pantheon paperback, $7.95).

This is the moment to offer you a taste of the book's flavor. A bookish quotation seems in order, but I would rather give you a passage more charming than literary - something Carroll wrote to a child actress. I don't like his picture of an old feeble John, but the message is a telling one:

''And I have heard another story - perhaps you have heard it, too - about a very old man called 'John,' who lived a long time ago. . . . When he was very old and feeble they used to carry him into the church to talk to the people; but he was too weak to say much; and at last he used to say nothing but 'Little children, love one another.'

''I daresay that people thought 'Why doesn't he tell us something new? We've learnt that lesson over and over again.' However, that was 1800 years ago, and I don't think we've learnt it quite perfect, even now."

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