Spotlight on Wonderland: The Duchess

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With a frustrating mix of rain, wind, sunshine, pollen, and taxes, the month of April is certainly reminiscent of the volatile tempers of the Duchess. Blustery then blithe, raucous then regal, the duchess is an absolute mess of contrary and contrasting emotions.

When Alice first walks into the Duchess’ home, she notes the distinct and overwhelming aroma of peppery soup, followed by the sound of howling and sneezing. These sounds arise from the duchess and her baby sitting in the middle of the room, feeling the effects of an overzealous cook.

`There’s certainly too much pepper in that soup!’ Alice said to herself, as well as she could for sneezing.

There was certainly too much of it in the air. Even the Duchess sneezed occasionally; and as for the baby, it was sneezing and howling alternately without a moment’s pause. The only things in the kitchen that did not sneeze, were the cook, and a large cat which was sitting on the hearth and grinning from ear to ear.

When Alice attempts to calm the cacophonous kitchen, she is rebuked. “If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said, in a hoarse growl, “the world wound go round a good deal faster than it does.” Not long after, the Duchess all but flings her child into Alice’s arms in her haste to get ready for the Queen of Hearts’ croquet game.

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But this is not all we see of the Duchess. Later, at the croquet game, she appears again in a completely different state of mind and attitude. It is not hard to understand why Alice feels something akin to whiplash when she is greeted again.

`You can’t think how glad I am to see you again, you dear old thing!’ said the Duchess, as she tucked her arm affectionately into Alice’s, and they walked off together.

Alice was very glad to find her in such a pleasant temper, and thought to herself that perhaps it was only the pepper that had made her so savage when they met in the kitchen.

In the dialogue that follows, the Duchess reveals that she can find a moral in absolutely anything. Inevitably, when these morals are stated, they cause the reader’s eyes to cross.

Would you rather encounter a cantankerous Duchess or a short-tempered Queen in Wonderland?

Did you Know:

  • Tenniel’s illustration of the Duchess may be based on a 14th century painting of Margaret Maultasch, Countess of Tyrol, which is titled ‘The Ugly Duchess’.
  • The Cheshire Cat belongs to the Duchess. You can see it in the background of illustrations of her kitchen. When Alice asks why her cat grins, the Duchess, in her usual huffy manner, replies “It’s a Cheshire cat…and that’s why.”

Visit the Maryland Room gallery in Hornbake Library from October 2105-July 2016 to discover more about the Duchess and the rest of the Wonderland cast of characters in the exhibit Alice 150 Years and County…The Legacy of Lewis Carroll: Selections from the Collection of August and Clare Imholtz.

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