Why read “Alice”? Isn’t it a children’s book? And haven’t you already absorbed every detail of it, through cultural osmosis. After all, every scene is iconic, every character very well known, (the white rabbit, the mad hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and so on) – even many of the phrases – “off with his head”, “Curiouser and curiouser”, “I’m late” etc. – have entered the language. Is there anything left to be learnt?

A little. For every book that falls into this category – very well known, but very little read – reading the novel, in this case for the first time, in other cases for the first time for decades – is a very interesting experience. What characters and scenes have entered the cultural lexicon, and which missed the cut? In Alice an extraordinary proportion of the scenes have made it. Reading the novel was like revisiting familiar childhood scenes. There were very few chapters or scenes that were not well known, and that had survived the transition from book to popular knowledge largely intact – the Mad Hatter and the March Hare are exactly as random and bizarre as you think they are going to be, the Cheshire Cat and the Caterpillar are slightly creepy, and the Mock Turtle sadly irritating.
The Internet will tell you that Alice is a satirical portrayal of Victorian England, with disguised portrayals of political and other prominent, and that the nonsense comments of the characters either are coded commentary on the events of the day, or simply a portrait of the topsy-turvy nature of society – “We are all mad here”. Critics have been able to divine critiques on the Monarchy, colonialism, evolution, politics both left and right and many others in Alice – how fruitful these attempts at decoding the text have been is debateable. Alice is a wonderful children’s book, where the dream-like transitions from one bizarre situation to another, capture perfectly a child’s flexible perspective on the world. I suspect it is that aspect of the novel, rather than its “hidden” meanings, that have made it so popular, and why the characters have been so resilient, when other Victorian children’s literature – The Water Babies for example – have faded from the popular imagination.  

One other point – the book is very short, can be read in a couple of hours, and is free on the Kindle, which is where I read it – so why not try it? The Kindle edition, although free, does not have any of the wonderful illustrations that form such a large part of the book’s impact. Mervyn Peake illustrated the book for one edition, which is worth getting your hands on if you can – if not take a look at his extraordinarily powerful drawings on the web.