Maybe Alice was mad to be in Wonderland but she was really mad when she left the Mad Tea Party. Leaving the party, she vowed never to return and declared, “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!” Manners were paramount when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published 150 years ago. In Lewis Carroll’s subversive take on the British culture, authority, social convention, and conformity were all subject to parody and the Mad Tea Party was no exception. In it, everything--including fundamental Victorian norms like etiquette--went topsy turvy.
Edward Wakeling is the author of Lewis Carroll: The Man and his Circle, an appraisal of Carroll resulting from forty years of research. “Carroll was well aware of etiquette,” he tells me. In 1855, ten years prior to writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll published Hints for Etiquette: or Dining Out Made Easy. It parodied the strict and stuffy rules characteristic of the notoriously formal and strait-laced Victorian era. Class was particularly pronounced during this period--manners could be a form of social signifier and depth of knowledge regarding etiquette could contribute to acceptance or dismissal from fashionable social circles.
Carroll drew inspiration from a real etiquette book, Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society; With A Glance At Bad Habits. First published 1834, the popular book ran to 28 editions by 1854. In Carroll’s tongue-in-cheek version, he offers his own variations on those rules. The original Hints on Etiquette suggests, “If you pass to dine merely from one room to another, offer your left arm to the lady.” In Carroll’s take, he advises, “In proceeding to the dining room, the gentleman gives one arm to the lady he escorts--it is unusual to offer both.”
“Hints for Etiquette was published in The Comic Times in 1855 so it’s a very early work. He would have been 23 at the time but, again, it is very typical of his slightly dry humor. This is the difficult part with people who have a dry sense of humor--you don’t always realize there’s a joke being made,” explains Wakeling. “Certainly, there’s a lot of evidence in his letters, more so than in his books, where he is writing someone and kind of teases them. He was a very humorous man, a very clever man, too, so he was able to do that.”
On one occasion, Carroll was invited to a tea that was hosted from 4pm until 6pm. He replied that he couldn’t possibly drink tea continuously for two hours. Of course, Carroll was making a joke but not everyone caught on to his humor. In fact, one biographer interpreted this to mean Carroll did not like tea, which was not accurate at all. Carroll was known to fancy a cuppa--so much so that he devised a special kettle with a long wooden handle so it wouldn’t burn his hand and was often making tea for his visitors and guests.
According to Wakeling, “You had to be careful when you listened to him to be quite certain he was not actually pulling your leg and telling a joke. That sort of comes out in the Alice books as well, with his sense of humor.”
“I think Lewis Carroll was almost holding up a looking glass to the etiquette of society at that time and maybe pointing it up,” says Jane Pettigrew, a tea expert and historian who has authored fifteen books on tea. “It’s just absolutely a contradiction of everything that would have been correct at a Victorian tea party.”
The first peculiarity of the tea party was its setting and hosts. Most tea parties were inside, hosted in a drawing room by the lady of the house. When Alice arrives, “there was a table set out under a tree in front of the house.” Instead of a lady, the hosts of this party were mad men--no, not Don Draper and Roger Sterling--the Hatter and the March Hare. Their madness was referred to earlier in Alice’s adventures by the 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.’”
It’s not certain how Carroll came up with either character. Some have speculated the Hatter may have been based on Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer whose eccentricities and penchant for wearing a top hat earned him the nickname of “madhatter” around Oxford. Also in the nineteenth century, mercury was used in the making of hats and the expression “mad as a hatter” originated from the effects it could have on the nervous system. Mercury poisoning, or erethism, could cause short-temperedness and insanity. For this reason, some have theorized this was the inspiration for the Hatter, although H.A. Waldron sought to debunk this popular theory in an article published in the British Medical Journal in 1983.
As for the March Hare, there was a form of March Madness that should not to be confused with the frenzied college basketball tournament. When breeding season commences in March, the usually quiet and shy hare gets frisky, sometimes boxing and brawling with other hares. Their antics inspired the idiom “mad as a march hare.” Since it was commonly used in Victorian times, Carroll probably knew the expression. While the Hatter is pointing at the March Hare with his teaspoon, he alludes to this form of March Madness, “We quarrelled last March – just before he went mad, you know.”
The final guest at the Mad Tea Party was the Dormouse, who was fast asleep at the time of Alice’s arrival. While this is not exactly polite, his behavior can partially be excused due to timing. Dormouse comes from the Latin dormire, meaning “to sleep,” referencing its hibernation in winter. Even in May (the month of Alice’s adventure) it remains in a slumberous state throughout the day.
Alice herself lacks etiquette when she joins the party without an invitation. Instead of tea, she is offered wine by the March Hare. This would also be frowned upon according to Hints on Etiquette, which explains that wine is offered to ladies only after their soup or fish is finished and “if either a lady or gentleman be invited to take wine at table, they must never refuse; it is very gauche to do so.” Of course, there is no need to adhere to proper protocol because there isn’t any wine at the party.
Alice is never actually offered any tea throughout the entire tea party and there isn’t much food, either--just some bread and butter. Although tea parties were initially more of a social occasion rather than a meal, Pettigrew explains, “As the Victorian period progressed, it became more and more something that people added more and more elaborate menus to, so the menu could have been anything from just a cake to a full scale spread of sandwiches and scones.” Foods served at tea parties were intended to tide guests over until dinner; they also had to be neat and dainty since women often wore gloves while eating.
The Hatter explains that because it is always tea time, there’s “no time to wash things betweenwhiles.” Although this leads to another situation atypical for Victorian etiquette--piles of dirty dishes--it also creates a scenario typical of Carroll’s writing style. “The joke is that every now and again they move forward and the only person that gets any advantage in that is the Hatter because he gets the clean plates. The rest have to make do with a plate that other people have used,” Wakeling tells me. “This is very typical of Dodgson, that when you end up where you started from, what happens next? The subject gets quickly changed. This is very much a technique he used when he has backed himself into a corner, then he changes the subject of the story.”
Proper manners and impeccable etiquette were of utmost importance for any tea party. “I think everyone felt like you should be behaving better at tea time--sitting up straight, passing the food, conversations going smoothly, not the time for people to be selfish or indulgent in their own interests,” says Pettigrew. “It was meant to be a time of elegance and conversation and really just having a nice time in the middle of the day. It’s seen an upper class thing--good etiquette, good behavior, nice manners, everything clean and proper was very much the order of the day no matter what your class.”
Of course, none of this was evident at the Mad Tea Party. Along with the dirty dishes and slouched over Dormouse, Alice and the others engage in rude banter throughout the their tea party. The rudeness begins when Alice attempts to join the Hatter and the March Hare at their party. Despite their being plenty of empty chairs, they tell her there’s “no room, no room!” Instead of an introduction, the first thing the Hatter tells Alice is that she needs to cut her hair. In turn, “Alice said with some severity: ‘it’s very rude.’” The insults continued, as did the interruptions, and they eventually caused Alice to leave. When the Hatter interrupted her, “This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear; so she got up in great disgust and walked off.”
No invitation or introduction, too many insults and interruptions--Alice decided this wasn’t her cup of tea and further down the rabbit hole she went.
Image Credits: All illustrations by Sir John Tenniel via Wikimedia Commons.