Fun Fact:
It has been speculated recently that Margaretha Maultasch, the supposed subject of Matsys’ painting was actually a sufferer of Paget’s disease.  (WunderKabinett.


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A. E . Jackson's DuchessThe Duchess

“If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”


The Duchess does not appear in Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground.  The White Rabbit does make reference to meeting the “Marchioness” in chapter two, but she never appears.  In Wonderland “marchioness” is changed to “Duchess” and the episodes featuring the Duchess in the kitchen (Chapter 6) and on the croquet ground (Chapter 9) are also added.  The Duchess is one of the most unreasonable and violent characters in the book, perhaps second only to the Queen of Hearts herself. She also is incredibly didactic, insisting in Chapter 9, that “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” Elsie Leach, in her article “Alice in Wonderland in Perspective” (1964), argues that the Duchess character serves as Carroll’s critical commentary on the Victorian system of education.

“In her own kitchen [the Duchess] indulges in baby-beating and brutal candor…[but] at the croquet ground she is all sweetness, though not necessarily a bearer of light…In this episode, the Duchess’ motto is ‘Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it,’ and she becomes more and more extravagant and nonsensical in her application of axioms to everything Alice says and does. When Dodgson makes a ridiculous character like the Duchess praise and practice moralizing in this manner, he clearly indicates his attitude toward didactism directed against children.” (91-92

It is also not wildly out of the interpretive imagination to consider the Duchess as an example of Carroll’s political and social criticism of life in the Victorian era.  Carroll lived during a era of social and political upheaval in England as the middle class began to rise and balk against the privileges of the upper class.  The satirical portrayal of aristocratic characters such as the Queen and the Duchess seem to show Carroll on the side of the common man.


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Chapter 6
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Matsys' Ugly Duchess Painting


The Duchess (and the rest of the kitchen crew) is a very popular subject for illustration.  Tenniel’s is probably still the most famous, and in many of the film versions the Duchess wears an enormous head-dress as a nod to Tenniel’s drawing. Martin Gardner points out in his Annotated Alice, that “A glance at the portrait of the Ugly Duchess, by the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Quintin Matsys leaves little doubt that it served as the model for Tenniel’s Duchess” (82). (See fun fact!) Ralph Steadman also explained his idea of the Duchess in the preface to his Alice: “The Duchess is an ex-starlet who married the aristocrat. A high-class tart gone to seed. Her tiny mind has developed a home-spun philosophy within a cultured environment in an effort to keep up appearances” (TextBookRUs.com). Click on one of the illustrators in the right hand column to see how the image of the Duchess has changed over time. Note that many illustrators are heavily influenced in this case by Tenniel's drawing.



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The episode in the Duchess’ kitchen, though very popular amongst illustrators, is one of the hardest scenes to portray well on film.  Somehow the scene is amusing and ridiculous when read, but the effect of seeing this scene played out, with the Duchess abusing her baby while the cook throws pots and pans, is really quite disturbing.  The most interesting film version of this scene, in my opinion, is Jonathan Miller’s 1966 version, where the Duhcess is actually played by a male actor Leo McKern.  I also think that the Pig and Pepper scene from the 1986 musical Alice at the Palace, is notable for manging to convey the chaos and energy of the encounter.

Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland (UK, 1966)


Alice in Wonderland (1931)
This is the first "talkie" Alice film

Alice at the Palace (1981)

More film versions of the Duchess' Kitchen scene:

Nick Willing's 1999 Alice in Wonderland
Harry Harris' 1985 TV movie Alice in Wonderland




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