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Review: “Reflecting Alice. A Textual Commentary on Through the Looking-Glass”

The book “Reflecting Alice. A Textual Commentary on Through the Looking-Glass” is a follow-up to the book “Elucidating Alice. A Textual Commentary on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, written by Selwyn Goodacre. It provides insight into the quality of Carroll’s writing skills and the narrative structure of his story.

Reflecting Alice - coverAfter the book “Elucidating Alice. A Textual Commentary on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was published, it left us eagerly looking forward to its sequel. We had to wait as long as Victorian readers had to wait for the sequel to Alice’s first adventures, because “Reflecting Alice. A Textual Commentary on Through the Looking-Glass” did not appear until December 2021 – presumably not coincidentally, exactly 150 years after the original book was published.

I only happened to find out about its availability in January. Perhaps the publication was not promoted much, or the book was published later than it states on its title page. (Which, by the way, would be very much in the style of Carroll’s original, which was published in December 1871, while the title page stated 1872 – and after all, it is a book about a mirror world.)

“Reflecting Alice” is similar in structure to the first volume: it is an edition of the original book with John Tenniel’s illustrations, supplemented by a general introduction, brief introductions per chapter, and annotations in the text itself by Selwyn Goodacre. This may sound like a spin-off of Martin Gardner’s famous “The Annotated Alice”, but that’s not the case: where “The Annotated Alice” focuses on explaining the background of the book and points out meanings and references we would not automatically recognize in the story, “Reflecting Alice” focuses on analyzing the construction of the story. Goodacre looks at the book from a literary perspective: how does the narrative structure work? To what extent has Carroll managed to construct a good story? How skilled was his writing style?

The introductions preceding each chapter look at how the chapter is structured and how it relates to other chapters. Goodacre’s in-text annotations then provide an analytical look at our beloved story. He points out to us, among other things, the skilful way in which Carroll keeps the reader interested, mentions Carroll’s use of subtle irony and humor, gives more insight into what exactly happens in certain scenes, or emphasizes a funny situation, so the reader won’t miss anything. On the other hand, he is also critical: multiple times he highlights the author’s ‘curious’ and ‘slightly odd’ choices in terms of plot or word choice, or does not agree with the use of certain punctuation marks. He regularly refers to “The Annotated Alice” for further explanation of a point. (Buyers of this book are therefore well advised to also purchase “The Annotated Alice”, but I actually expect that people who are the target audience of “Reflecting Alice” will have read that book already.) It is clear that the publisher, Michael Everson of Evertype, has also helped with the content, because Goodacre occasionally mentions an addition received from Everson to an annotation.


Inside look at Reflecting Alice

As mentioned before, in addition to these introductions and annotations, the book also contains the complete text of “Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there”. Also added are the well-known ‘Christmas Greetings’, ‘An Easter Greeting’ and the text of the leaflet ‘To All Child Readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and part of the original preface.

The basis for the story is the text of the 1897 edition, with some additional corrections. Given the large number of changes that Carroll continued to make to the text, which results in almost all editions up to his death being slightly different, it is nice that the version used is mentioned – I think more publishers and editors should do this!

It is not surprising that this book does. Michael Everson, linguist, typesetter, and publisher of, among other things, many translations of the story, is someone who also values ​​this. Author Selwyn Goodacre is also a household name in the field of Lewis Carroll studies and someone I have great respect for – he served for many years on the board of the Lewis Carroll Society and wrote many books and articles on Carroll and his works. One of his contributions is the meticulous textual comparison of all first editions of Carroll’s books. If anyone is an expert on text versions, it’s him!

It is therefore with regret that I also have to place critical notes on this book. “Reflecting Alice” is an interesting treatise that gives the reader a better understanding of Carroll’s text. But compared to predecessor “Elucidating Alice” it is a lesser book. “Reflecting Alice” has a 9-page general introduction and contains 352 annotations, “Elucidating Alice” had an 18-page introduction and a whopping 635 annotations! And although it is understandable that, probably for reasons of consistency, it has been decided to start each chapter with an introduction, by no means all introductions have a clear added value.

Of course, it could just be that there’s more to say about Carroll’s first story, or that certain comments were already made in the first volume and Goodacre didn’t want to repeat himself. That is understandable. What I really do regret about this edition is the many textual and formatting errors. The line separating the annotations from the text is positioned very close to the text, which looks unpleasant – but that’s a detail. More noticeable is that the line spacing in the text varies: especially at the beginning of almost all chapters, but also repeatedly in the middle of a chapter or even a paragraph. But the biggest issue is the lack of a textual check of the annotations. Here and there full stops are missing, there are too many punctuation marks, there is a typo, or a word is missing. Of course, no book is flawless, especially not a first edition (after all, it’s said that the best way to check your text for errors is to press ‘publish’), but the amount of errors in this book suggests that the annotations were just barely checked.

Not everyone may notice these things, but I found them to be off-putting. In my view, this carelessness on the part of the publisher detracts from the author’s work, especially since it is a book that is critical of, among other things, Carroll’s use of punctuation, and was written by someone who looks at texts in detail! Perhaps there was a rush to publish the book, so as not to delay it for too long after the 150th anniversary of “Through the Looking-Glass”?

Despite these flaws in the form, I can recommend the content of the book to anyone interested in a critical look at the text construction of the story. (Admittedly, that’s probably a niche market.) But if a second issue of the book in which all textual and formatting errors have been corrected will follow soon, I’d wait for it.

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