Tuesday 24 March 2009


I'm really fond of a nice cuppa and on a recent visit to Oxford - sometime home of Lewis Carroll and birthplace of 'Alice' - I picked up a rather particular tea-bag...

An odd souvenir, I know, but that's me...

Now, some of you may recall my boring you about this before but there's actually no such character as the MAD HATTER.

Yes, yes, I agree that's what people call him - and the film magazines have recently been carrying photos of Johnny Depp (right) who will be playing the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's forthcoming film of the book - but Lewis Carroll never calls him the Mad Hatter - not once!

The author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland only ever speaks about him as "the Hatter".

What's more, Carroll never refers to that curious afternoon's entertainment that the Hatter presides over as 'The Mad Hatter's Tea-Party'.

Don't believe me? Check out Chapter Seven and you'll find it's entitled 'A Mad Tea-Party' - no Hatter's.

You'll also find that it was held in the garden of the March Hare's house, so it really, absolutely wasn't the Hatter's tea-party!

Where then does the Hatter's damaging reputation for madness come from? Well, it seems that it's all down to the word of a CAT... What's more, a Cheshire Cat...

'In that direction,' the Cat said, waving its right paw round, 'lives a Hatter: and in that direction,' waving the other paw, 'lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.'

'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.'

So, there you are: the only reason we have for calling the Hatter 'Mad' is because we're told he's mad --- and by a character, please note, who not only believes that he's mad himself but that everyone else is mad as well.

There is, of course, a saying (coined long before Lewis Carroll's time): 'As mad as a hatter', the origin of which is somewhat vague...

The felt used in hat-making was 'cured' with the use of mercury and prolonged inhalation of the fumes frequently led to mercury poisoning, resulting in such neurological damage as confused speech and distorted vision. It was a regrettable side-effect of the millinery trade and often brought about an early death.

However, the symptoms of mercury poisoning are 'excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self-confidence, anxiety, and a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive,' which doesn't sound even remotely like the bombastic bully encountered by Alice.

There is a further theory that Lewis Carroll based the Hatter on Theophilus Carter, a former servitor at Lewis Carroll's college, Christ Church, who invented an alarm clock bed, exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, that tipped out the sleeper at waking-up time!

That certainly sounds pretty mad but his alleged reputation for being referred to in Oxford as 'The Mad Hatter' derives from the fact that he later owned a furniture shop and is said to have been in the habit of standing in the door of his shop wearing a top hat.

Not the maddest behaviour you've ever come across, I'll bet. Nevertheless, legend has it that the illustrator of Alice's Adventures, Sir John Tenniel (right), travelled to Oxford especially to sketch him for his pictures of the Hatter.

This, however, seems amazingly unlikely since when Lewis Carroll's alter-ego - mathematics don Charles Dodgson - suggested a child who might serve as an artist's model for Alice, Tenniel retorted that he no more needed a model to draw a child that Mr Dodgson needed a set of mathematical tables to work out his sums!

So, is it really feasible that Tenniel would have bothered to take the train from London to Oxford simply in order to sketch the local furniture-shop-man? I think not!

Finally, an observation on that price tag of 10/6 (ten-shillings-and-six-pence in British pre-decimal currency) that Carroll never mentioned but which Tenniel added to the Hatter's topper and which virtually all subsequent illustrators (and most filmmakers) have felt obliged to copy...

This sum - half-a guinea - suggests that it was quite an expensive titfer and it has been calculated that if one were able to purchase it today it would cost £72 or $105!

Anyway, Hatters are popping up all over the place just now, blog-friend, Good Dog sent me this cover art by Dustin Nguyen for the DC comic, Batman Detective Comics issue #841, showing the Masked Crusader attending a wacky Wonderland tea-party where the Hatter (inspired by an illustration by Arthur Rackham) sports a topper that, at only 8/11, is a tad cheaper than Tenniel's headgear!

Click image to enlarge

For more information on those tea-bags that got me started on all this, visit The Mad Hatter Tea Company.


Anonymous said...

One of my favourite books - even into my fifties! Unfortunately most of the finesses of the language are lost in translation (lessons/lessens?!!), so most people over here only know the Disney film.
Nevertheless, I think the Cheshire cat lived in a wonderful world, maintaining that everyone was mad. We could all use a bit of that - can I call it a "mentality"?!
arymbell: the peculiar habit some people have of forgetting to take the price tag off articles of clothing

Brian Sibley said...

Not being a linguist, I can only imagine the tortures of translating Carroll's punning dialogue.

Your re-definition of 'mentality', by the way, seems utterly appropriate.

Diva of Deception said...

So having now proved that Mr D never ever referred to his character as the Mad hatter - please can you tell us when the first sighting, or should I say reading, of the words the 'Mad Hatter', in reference to this character, did take place?

Don't tell me that it's all down to Mr. Disney yet again?

Anonymous said...

I always think of this quote in such moments:
"When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life
stands explained."--Mark Twain

So true. It used to be the signature of a friend who passed away a year ago.

My own sig is currently : "Most artistic people are mental patients...in the closet" Alice Cooper

No wonder I'm in love with that man!

I love that illustration. I've done some sketches at a time to find my "own" Hatter. I should go back to these it's a subject that never ceases to inspire.

Have you seen Rodney Matthews' new Alice book? I love it to bits, but I am biased as Matthews is one of my biggest influences ;)

Brian Sibley said...

DIVA - Good question! And one to which I honestly do not know the answer. It's one of those things (the Wonderland equivalent of an urban myth, I guess) but the Hatter probably became the Mad Hatter pretty soon after the book began to achieve world-wide quotability and certainly Uncle Walt is in no way to blame -- although, that said, the title-card on the Disney film says the movie is based on the book by 'Lewis Carrol', so they weren't that attentive to the original to have misspelled the author's name!

DRAGONLADYCH - Love the Mark Twain quote. What sage old bird he was...

Have only glimpsed Rodney Matthews' Alice but will definitely get it as I love his other fantasy art - including that magical painting of Rivendell in Middle-earth...

Anonymous said...

"Linguistically" speaking, Brian, I think I'd rather not know what they've done with it in French! I've already seen how LOTR has been massacred in French. (Following a challenge set me at Tolkien 2005, I "corrected" the French translation...)
bivent: the hole at the top of a top hat where the wind whistles through

Anonymous said...

You’re interest in this subjest amuses me no end, you are obviously a committed fan, and if not probably should be.
Are you sure you’re not a little guilty of wearing too many hats?
If you like www.mad-hatter-tea.com I know where you can get some more…
Send a self addressed envelop to: -

Mad Hatter Tea Co
Mad Hatter House
10 Racecourse Road
North Yorkshire
DL10 4TG

Regards, Madison Hatter