Book Reviews, Lewis Carroll, Penguin Classics
Comments 26

We’re All Mad Here

I tried university once before.

That sounds a bit decadent, doesn’t it. Sort of like when someone offers you a drink:

Oh, I tried that once before, daaahling, can’t say it agreed with me. Do pass the gin.

Ironically, it was this exact sentiment that probably led to my abysmal failure and consequent dropping-out of university. Nevertheless, I did try it. Tried Law, in fact. Of all the endless, faceless degrees out there, I chose the hard one. Why? Because I was just on the wrong-side of the end of university’s domination, graduating high-school at the end of the era where university was the holy grail and Law and Medicine were the gold plating. But, ha-ha, the jokes on us, because in the new Australian employment climate it’s the plumbers, mechanics, electricians and construction workers who earn the big bucks now, thanks to the ever-booming mining industry.

But I digress.

So back in that hazy, booze soaked first year of a failed degree, one of the electives I chose was Women’s Studies. Why? Can’t be sure. I assume my rationale went something along the lines of:

I’m a woman…this appears to be a study of women…therefore I must be able to study myself! If it is indeed a study of myself then surely I won’t need to actually show up to lectures or classes because I am with myself every day anyway! Voila! More drinking time!

It’s probably superfluous to point out that I failed this unit, miserably. It’s also slightly embarrassing to admit that I did in fact have the nerve to appeal my mark to my tutor, via email naturally as I wasn’t sure what she looked like, having not been to any of her classes. I believe I received a somewhat scathing reply along the lines of the necessity of showing up to accomplish a degree…….but no matter……

The reason I am divulging this less than flattering portrait is that there was one brilliant thing that I took away from this Women’s Studies unit. For one of the assignments, I chose to study Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What on earth the assignment was or how on earth I related it to Alice in Wonderland I’m afraid I’ll never know, that part of my memory having been donated to alcohol some time ago. Nevertheless, I did chose to study it, and consequently delved for the first time into the novel version of that wondrous tale.


Advice From A Caterpillar – John Tenniel

I won’t ramble on incessantly about the story line, suffice to say it follows the general twists and turns of the cartoon version that everyone in the world watched as a child.


You have never seen it?

Stop what you’re doing immediately, IMMEDIATELY, and go and watch it.


I’m just kidding.

Finish reading this post first.


Anyway, through the university bookshop I got my hands on a superb copy of the book, published, obviously, by my hero’s at Penguin. If you don’t already own a copy of Alice I insist you buy this one, and no other.


This fantastic version is incomparable for the following reasons:

1. It has a wonderful (if lengthy) introduction on the author, the book and its numerous interpretations, which is extremely educational if you can be bothered to read it.

2. It includes 42 beautiful illustrations by John Tenniel. For as Alice herself says, ‘what is the use of a book…without pictures?’

3. Not only does this book contain Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it also contains Through the Looking Glass. But much more importantly, it contains Alice’s Adventures Underground, the original manuscript version of the story which Carroll wrote and gifted to his child-friend, Alice Liddell, the heroine of the tale. This version features Carroll’s original drawings, which he drew for Alice to accompany her story.

IMG_4070(Alice in the White Rabbit’s house – Lewis Carroll)

(I will pause briefly to make a side-note. ‘Lewis Carroll’ was the pseudonym of the Reverend C. L. Dodgson. I refer to him as ‘Lewis Carroll’ throughout this post as that is his far more familiar moniker, and the name most firmly connected to the Alice stories.)

4. The book also has detailed and intriguing end-notes, such as the following:

(original text): …she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as…if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and… if you drink much from a bottle marked “poison”, it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

(end-note): ‘several nice little stories’. Carroll is poking fun at the moralistic literature for children represented by such books as Elizabeth Turner’s Cautionary Tales…Alice would probably have been all too familiar with such stories.

Another thing we would miss without end-notes is the numerous parodies Carroll includes in the story, such as the following:

(original text): How doth the little crocodile/Improve his shining tale/And pour the waters of the Nile/On every golden scale // How cheerfully he seems to grin/How neatly spreads his claws/And welcomes little fishes in/With gently smiling jaws!

(end-note): ‘how doth the little crocodile’. The first poem in the story, like most of those that follow, is a parody of a well-known children’s poem. It parodies the first two stanzas of ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’, by the poet…Isaac Watts (1674-1748): How doth the little busy Bee/Improve each shining Hour/And gather Honey all the Day/From ev’ry op’ning Flow’r! // How skilfully she builds her Cell/How neat she spreads the Wax/And labours hard to store it well/With the sweet Food she makes…

I must say I vastly prefer Carroll’s version.

I love end-notes to books, mainly because I am a nerd but also because I find it so interesting to discover the author’s intentions behind the text. This is especially true of a writer like Carroll, who creates such complex allusions to content from his own life, so witty and clever that if you aren’t paying attention or don’t have the information you are bound to miss it.

A few more snippets to encourage you to read this book:

  • Visual puns such as this beautiful poem, told to Alice by a mouse she meets, who is explaining to her why he hates cats and dogs. The visual pun element is a reflection of the mouse’s tail, which Alice confuses with the mouse’s tale:


“Fury said to a mouse, That he met in the house, ‘Let us both go to law: I will prosecute you.– Come, I’ll take no denial: We must have a trial; For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.’ Said the mouse to the cur, ‘Such a trial, dear sir, With no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath.’ ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,’ said cunning old Fury: ‘I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.’ ” 

What a wonderful little poem it is, simply executed yet demonstrating Carroll’s proficiency with poetry.

  • The psychological reflections on humans and human nature, as we ask ourselves the endless, unanswerable questions: Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going? This is a common theme throughout the book, and causes Alice much dismay:

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar… Alice replied, rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.


“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

These brilliant reflections, given to us in the form of Alice’s conversations with the creatures she meets, are such accurate portrayals of the confusion and conflict that we feel every day. This demonstrates the power of Carroll’s writing, his ability to make these astute observations about life in the guise of a children’s tale.

  • The beauty and poetry of Carroll’s writing style. Excerpts such as the following are as beautiful for their structure as for their wit, and demonstrate further Carroll’s exceptional and exacting grasp of the English language.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse…”that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Here Carroll is cleverly criticising the disintegration of the English language, a disintegration which is so advanced in our society today that he would be appalled, were he here to witness it. By offering these clever and entertaining comparisons, Carroll appears to be mocking our ability to correctly construct an accurate sentence, revealing for us the descent into nonsense that is a result of it.

  • The drawings by Tenniel. What can I say. They are some of the most copied pictures in the world, beautiful, appealing and entertaining in equal measure. Many of them are based on paintings or people of Tenniel’s time, such as the following, (based on end-notes):


The Duchess. Tenniel has modelled his portrait of the Duchess on a painting now in the National Gallery, London, A Grotesque Old Woman by Quentin Massys or an imitator.


The Hatter. Tenniel’s drawing of the Hatter is reputed to have been based on an eccentric Oxford character called Theophilus Carter, known as the Mad Hatter because he always wore a top hat.


The Frog Footman. Tenniel’s drawing is clearly modelled on a caricature by the great French illustrator Grandville.

I have to stop this.

I am getting carried away.

The things I have mentioned here have only been taken from the first story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I will leave you to discover the boundless merits of Through the Looking-Glass and Alice’s Adventures Underground for yourself.

It is an intriguing and disturbing side note to the beauty of these books that there was a shadowy scandal surrounding the author and his real-life protagonist, Alice. They first met when Carroll was 24 and Alice Liddell was 3, and as she grew older they became excellent friends’, according to Carroll’s diary. He explored his amateur photography by taking pictures of Alice and her sisters, pictures that ‘tell us, if nothing else, he was in love with Alice’ (Michael Bakewell). In June 1863 Alice’s mother, Lorina Liddell, terminated their (Alice/Carroll’s) friendship forever. According to the introduction:

It is one of the great ironies of [Carroll’s] life that by the time Wonderland was published in 1865, making [Alice] about the most famous seven-year-old girl in history and him the most famous children’s writer, their relationship was a thing of the past and [Carroll] was banned from the Deanery.

The exact details of what occurred between them, and the true nature of their relationship, will forever be shrouded in mystery. However, the elegant tales he invented for her, and their power and majesty as first-class pieces of literature, will continue to live on.

IMG_4076Alice playing croquet with the Queen, using a flamingo and a hedgehog – John Tenniel

As Alice herself says in the book:

Curiouser and curiouser.



  1. I certainly hope that I am included in the group of mad individuals, particularly since 1) I too lived with alcohol during part of my sentence, er, time at university and 2) I read to the end of this post and absolutely enjoyed it to bits!

  2. Thanks for this post! What a great walk through such a great book. You know, it only occurred to me last summer that in the first book they’re playing cards, and in the second one they’re playing chess! I had merged the red queens in my mind somehow?! But now the veil is lifted…

    • I know, there is so much more to each book that I pick up with every re-reading! Whatever else he might have been, Carroll was a genius 🙂

  3. Excellent post.
    Good thing you left law behind. Such dreamy walks through law pages…I wager…not quite so successful(too many lawyers out there, not many with pure hearts either!)

    • yes I am much more ‘Alice in Wonderland’ than ‘A Guide to the Criminal Justice System’…glad you liked the post!

  4. Terrific post. I usually don’t read posts that are more than three or four paragraphs but once I started reading yours, I had to read to the end. I’ve never read Alice in Wonderland (though I have seen the movie). I also have a reading list (just 6 books long) so I will have to add this one which I do have on our bookshelf. I happen to have a daughter who teaches high school English so we have every classic book ever published (so it seems). Thank you for stopping by my blog so it led me to yours. 🙂

  5. also, I was that girl on the bus, who became that woman on the beach always with a book in hand (and to nose for that matter). Hope you can check out my stuff, and maybe one day I can guest write a blog for your site, if you like what i can do. Check for my new posts coming out soon. Film and Book reviews. then maybe you’ll have me. but either way, again, came across your stuff today and I love your literary eye. KUDOS.

    • Hi thankyou so much for the lovely comment! I have explored/followed your blog, and I think it’s right up my alley 🙂 I haven’t considered guest poster’s yet because my blog is so new, but once I have it established I would love to get a piece from you!

  6. I love the conversation Alice and the Cheshire cat have about not knowing which direction to go in. So much like life; a series of digressions, which, incidentally, relates very elegantly to the beginning of your entry. I think most can vouch for that first semester of college being a rough transition…I remember thinking, “Uh oh…everyone else is smart too…” lol

    • Haha it is a shock to find out your not the smartest anymore, especially when you find yourself in a room with a group of over-achieving Law students!
      Yes Carroll’s words are so relatable to our lives, despite the fact that he wrote them well over 100 years ago. He really nailed human nature.

  7. Enjoyed yr post. Though I have read many different parts from Alice and enjoyed them, I have never read the whole together. Perhaps yr post will be the catalyst.

    • I hope you do read them all together! It is a wonderful book for us ‘grown up’s’ to read, so much more than just a fairy-tale :).

  8. Hello. Thank you for following my blog. I share your love of books. I’m really far behind in reading right now because of blogging. I really need to pick up Alice in Wonderland again. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. erickeys says

    What a wonderful post! I read Alice in Wonderland years ago. I knew there was much that I was missing. Now that I know about the Penguin edition I might have to give it another try. Thanks for putting the time into sharing this with us.

  10. Hi there,
    Thanks for the lovely comment and the re-blog. It really means a lot that people enjoy my interpretations of books I love!

  11. I am with you at an earlier post that Jules Verne was the first of the travel writers. Passepartout et all. We are avid readers, even prop up a book against the marmalade jar at breakfast.

  12. I now see Alice in Wonderland (or Alice Underground) in a new light and will also do as the person above me did and add it to my booklist so I can reread it with the things you mentioned in mind.

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