Everyone’s gone Alice mad! It’s been 150 years since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published. And on Saturday July 4th it’s Alice’s Day in Oxford. In honour of this frabjous occasion I’m doing a series of posts about all things Alice…
‘Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
As a Carroll who works on children’s literature, I’m often asked if I’m related to Lewis Carroll. I am not. Lewis Carroll is, of course, not a real Carroll at all. All real Carrolls have an addiction to tea and misbehaved hair.
Lewis Carroll had only one of these qualities.
See? His hair stays exactly where he put it.
But he was very keen on tea and there are accounts of him walking up and down in his rooms in Oxford swinging the teapot from side to side to make sure the tea drew properly.
I can appreciate this because I was raised to be picky about tea.
Since we’ve left the old country, we’ve been careful (carefulish) with our tea supply. Our preferred brand can’t be got in England and many of the commercial brands here are not suited to my palate and so we have to smuggle the stuff over. Because I’ve been on research leave this term I’ve basically been mainlining tea for eight or nine hours a day.
And, naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about tea and about the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The mad tea-party is the centre of a lot of misconceptions about Alice.
For a start, it’s not the Mad Hatter’s tea party – it takes place at the March Hare’s house (as Alice reasons, it is better to visit the March Hare because, since it isn’t March, he might not be quite as mad as the Hatter).
Secondly, it’s often treated as a key scene and in illustrations and adaptations (not to mention fan-culture) it is given far more precedence than, say, the scene with the pig-baby or the snarky flowers. But Carroll hadn’t even included it in the original Alice’s Adventures Underground (there Alice finishes her conversation with the Cheshire Cat by opening a door in a tree and passing directly through to the Queen’s Croquet grounds).
But the mad tea-party is a very visually attractive scene – in a way that the pig-baby definitely isn’t – and it has captured readers’ and illustrators’ imaginations like nothing else in the text. Even though Carroll’s description of the scene doesn’t make the meal sound very lovely – the Mad Hatter’s explains that he had a falling out with time and that time refuses to move on past six o’clock and now he is stuck in an endless teatimewarp. He and the Hare have no time to wash things so the table should be covered with dirty delf and crumbs and things – the illustrations often lend a festive air to the scene. Most illustrators show the tea as something sumptuous – the table is enormous and there are plates and plates of things to eat, not just a biscuit perched on the side of the saucer, melting gently against the cup…There’s something gloriously, outrageously decadent about the scene and the massive spread of tea things laid out on the table.
I’ve recently come across an illustration by Serena Curmi who, I think, most perfectly captures the true sadness of it always being teatime. Rather than a festive air, there’s something charmingly schadenfreudish about this image – the almost bare table, the sadly dripping watch, Alice’s downcast expression…
But recently I’ve been wondering – and I really don’t have a definite answer here – are the March Hare and the Mad Hatter teetotallers? And is this why they are mad?
In the 1860s, the Victorian temperance movement was at its height and contemporary children’s texts often contained stern warnings to young readers about the perils of the demon drink. For instance, Brenda’s Froggy’s Little Brother (possibly the most unashamedly heart-rending book ever written before the invention of Nicholas Sparks) tales the tale of two children left orphaned and alone in London after a drunk driver kills their father. Like warning children about the dangers of playing with matches or that failing eating your soup can be fatal, showing alcohol as an evil influence is a standard part of Victorian children’s literature.
Carroll’s work runs against the grain in this respect.
In his brilliantly bizarre but less-well-known Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1889), Carroll has a dig at teetotallers:
“”Yes, it is a ghastly innovation,” Lady Muriel replied,” letting the waiters carry round the wine at dessert. For one thing, they always take it the wrong way round which of course brings bad luck to everybody present! ”
“Better go the wrong way than not go at all!” said our host. “Would you kindly help yourself?” (This was to the fat red-faced man.) “You are not a teetotaler, I think?”
“Indeed but I am!” he replied, as he pushed on the bottles. “Nearly twice as much money is spent in England on Drink, as on any other article of food. Read this card.” (What faddist ever goes about without a pocketful of the appropriate literature?) “The stripes of different colours represent the amounts spent on various articles of food. Look at the highest three. Money spent on butter and on cheese, thirty-five millions: on bread, seventy millions: on intoxicating liquors, one hundred and thirty-six millions! If I had my way, I would close every public-house in the land! Look at that card, and read the motto. That’s where all the money goes to!”
“Have you seen the Anti-Teetotal Card? Arthur innocently enquired.
“No, Sir, I have not!” the orator savagely replied. “What is it like?”
“Almost exactly like this one. The coloured stripes are the same. Only, instead of the words ‘ Money spent on,’ it has ‘ Incomes derived from sale of; and, instead of ‘That’s where all the money goes to,’ its motto is ‘Thats where all the money comes from!’”
Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1889)
And, if you’re feeling a bit like the Duchess and you want to find morals and meanings in every aspect of Wonderland, you might argue that the Mad Hatter is a reference to Roger Crab (1621-80) who was known as the mad hatter and was a teetotaller as well as a vegetarian.
And, while readers and illustrators delight in the scene, the Hare and the Hatter seem rather dejected about the prospect of endless tea.
I’m not totally sure about the teetotal Hatter and Hare – I’d be interested to hear your views on it though. But for me, now it’s definitely time for tea…
If you’re keen to read more about tea in Alice, Jan Susina has a chapter on coffee and tea in The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature (2010) which I highly recommend. And if you’re interested in screen versions of Alice, Tom Krepico’s blog has a great round-up of links.
It’s Alice’s Day tomorrow so I’m going to run around looking at Alice things and maybe even have a go at learning the Lobster Quadrille (my attempts to learn from the helpful video have been less than successful). I’ll post pictures and thoughts later in the day. Now to do some research on crocodiles and why Alice carries a thimble in her pocket…
 At least the ones I’ve met
 Why tea draws but never paints is a mystery. For more on Dodgson’s tea-brewing practices see Stuart Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (1899) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11483/11483-h/11483-h.htm
 They are too weak. “Spinster’s piss” is the description that comes to mind.
 Which is rather late for a fancy afternoon tea…