This is one of the perfect examples of the obvious classics that you’ve heard all about it: you recognize Alice and Cheshire Cat, you’ve seen the various films but you haven’t actually read the book. At least, I didn’t until now.
Lots have been said about Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. It’s been the subject of endless literary studies but I will tell you one thing: it’s weird. Really, really weird.
The plot, as we know is simple. Alice and her sister are enjoying a day out when she spots white rabbit with a pocket watch. Curious, Alice follows him and falls down the rabbit hole and into a magical world where her adventures take place. She goes big, she goes small, she swims (and nearly drowns) in her tears, she finds tiny doors, she meets the craziest characters ever: the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle,The Queen of Hearts, the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat, The Duchess and more. For me, the Duchess is the weirdest and most fascinating of them all. And I’ll tell you why.
Children’s literature has plenty of the pretty and beautiful. But what fascinated me about The Duchess is that she’s ugly. Brutally ugly. And on top of that mean to her child and it’s the owner of the world famous Cheshire Cat!
It is unusual to deal with the lack of looks so boldly to the point that Alice feels very uneasy around her because of her appearance. “Alice did not much like keeping so close to her: first, because the Duchess was VERY ugly; and secondly, because she was exactly the right height to rest her chin upon Alice’s shoulder…”
The iconic images accompanying Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are those illustrated by Sir John Tenniel. Digging around a little bit, I found that, according to Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, Tenniel’s drawing of The Duchess was inspired in the painting The Ugly Duchess (c. 1513) by the Flemish painter Quentin Massys. The unusual and slightly disturbing artwork is part of The National Gallery’s permanent collection. Look at it, it’s brutal. And the resemblance is spot on!
Through its pages I can see why children and adults keep going back to this story. It is the madness of it all, circumstances and characters, that makes it so incredibly appealing, fun and entertaining. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an epic celebration of the human imagination and if you haven’t read it, do it now, it will feel like a dream.
To find out more about my Classic’s reading challenge click here.