The Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland” is arguably one of the most popular children’s book characters in history. The zany, tea-obsessed hatmaker has inspired costumes, art pieces, clothing, fan-fiction, films, songs, and musicals across the globe. However, the Mad Hatter (and other members of the Mad Tea-Party) isn’t merely a brain-child of Carroll. In fact, much of Carroll’s inspiration for his characters came from real people in his life and the lives of those close to him. According to the writings of Franziska E. Kohlt, a graduate student at Brasenose, the Mad Hatter and his friends were likely inspired by Carroll’s exposure to Victorian-era mental asylums.

Lewis Carroll’s exposure to insanity

Growing up, Carroll was very close with his uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, who was a Commissioner in Lunacy. His uncle’s job was to inspect asylums. This gave Carroll some of his early exposure to both psychiatric practices and to lunatic asylums of his era. His uncle also had a flair for photography. Both of these professions and interests allowed Carroll to connect to his uncle’s colleagues in psychiatry and psychology, including Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond. Dr. Diamond was an avid photographer and a doctor at the Surrey lunatic asylum. He felt as if though photography could help diagnose mental illness, as a person’s appearance could give people a glimpse into their mental state. This theory may have contributed to the unique appearance of many of Carroll’s characters in “Alice in Wonderland,” particularly the tall-hat, colorful coat, and massive bowtie belonging to the Mad Hatter.

Viewing real-life “mad” tea parties

One of the most famous elements of Carroll’s novel is the Mad Tea-Party that the Cheshire Cat leads Alice to early on in the book. It is central to the introduction of Caroll’s most zany and “mad” characters, including the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. As it turns out, similar tea parties were held in the asylums as a form of therapy. They were meant to stimulate and entertain the patients, creating an environment that wasn’t entirely bleak and depressing. The Mad Tea-Party in Carroll’s novel is, perhaps, the earliest instance of pure insanity in the book. It paints a picture of total madness and chaos, which even the Cheshire Cat confirms: “We’re all mad here.” From the frantic actions of the March Hare and Dormouse to the cluttered thought patterns of the Mad Hatter, Carroll seems to have drawn on the behaviors of the patients he observed in the asylum at their own “mad” tea parties.

Examining class differences in asylums

In addition to drawing inspiration from the environment of the asylums, the patients’ appearances, and their “mad” tea parties, Carroll also seemed to draw attention to how class affected the behavior and treatment of asylum patients. Kohlt argued that there were two clear classes of patients in the Victorian era asylums: the “lunatics” and the “pauper lunatics.” Those lunatics with wealth were treated with much more dignity than pauper lunatics, who were often ignored, mistreated, and even taunted. Kohlt believed that the Mad Hatter encompassed the image of the pauper lunatic to a tee. This seems to be especially accurate considering that pauper lunatics often included manual workers such as hatters. In Carroll’s novel, the Mad Hatter is treated as completely nonsensical and delusional by everyone except Alice, who, according to Kohlt, encompasses the “popular perceptions of insanity.” No matter who or what inspired the final form of the Mad Hatter, its clear that Carroll cared about portraying madness as something more than degrading. His work drew attention to psychiatry and psychology in a way that celebrated the role of those deemed “insane” by society.