The most curious residents of Wonderland: Mad Hatter, March Hare & Cheshire Cat

Our look at Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland continues with a trio of characters whose 19th century origins elude 21st century audiences…

Yesterday, we looked at some of the illustrations of the Alice stories by various artists, and next week we’ll be considering the differences and similarities in some of the many films through the years since Alice’s tales were first imagined and articulated in 1865.

We’ve pointed out that, in only five years’ time, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland will be 150 years old. Nearly a century and a half later and movies are still being made and new editions of books are illustrated and printed year on year.

One of the fascinating aspects of that fact, for this and other fans, is that Alice was written so long ago that we’re living in a very different age to when the inquisitive, clever and brave girl’s adventures took place and the meaning of some parts of the tales are as foreign to us as the idea of an iPod to Lewis Carroll.

Granted, much of the Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass books are nonsense rhyme and confounding plays on words, and that’s a large part of the stories’ enduring charm and fascination even still.

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But other parts were commonly known by readers of those earliest volumes, while their exact meanings have been lost through dogged-eared, tattered copies handed down through generations of families of readers. Some modern-day explanations are purely speculation, but with firm enough foundations to be believable. And although we’ll never know certain things about the stories beyond what’s been confirmed, at the very least they’re fun to consider…

Most of the characters in the Alice stories, including animals, were based on members of Alice Liddell’s family and other friends of Lewis Carroll. Others, such as the Gryphon, Bandersnatch and Jabberwock, are fictional creatures. The Mock Turtle is a play on the name of the English soup made from calve’s heads or feet, instead of less abundantly available turtle meat, and references to the soup, and even recipes, are easy to find today. But what of other Wonderlanders?

While queens and rabbits and even dodos are plain enough for us to comprehend, a few others have mysterious ancestry and a questionable heritage.

We take a look at three curious characters’ origins that the nineteenth century reader would have never given a second thought, and wonder how many noughties children – and adults – ever wonder what really made the hatter mad…

The ‘Mad’ Hatter

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Perhaps the most iconic image in Wonderland, other than The White Rabbit, we’ve come to call this tea drinking party-goer The Mad Hatter, although he was just The Hatter and referred to as mad.

It’s believed that the drawings of The Hatter are based on a furniture dealer, Theophilus Carter, in the Oxford area, who habitually wore a top hat and behaved eccentrically. We know that Carroll furnished the first professional illustrator, John Tenniel, a photograph of Mary Badcock, a dean’s daughter, from which to create his drawings of Alice, so the idea of other suggested models is reasonable.

But a possible origin of The ‘Mad’ Hatter is that the phrase “mad as a hatter” was used at the time to mean ‘crazy’ and probably stems from the use of mercury in fabricating felt, a major component in making hats.

Expensive hats were made from beaver fur, but cheaper rabbit fur required a mercury solution applied in a process of ‘carroting’, so-called because it turned the fur orange, and hatters breathed in fumes and handled processed felt in the normal course of their workday.

After prolonged exposure, hatters were, in effect, poisoning themselves, adversely affecting their nervous systems and they might develop facial tics and uncontrollable blinking, slurred speech and memory loss, depression and anxiety, which an observer of the times might consider signs of insanity.

This theory must be prevalent enough to have influenced Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland and to be the cause of Johnny Depp’s Hatter’s loose grasp on reality, as, if you look closely at The Hatter’s thimble-less fingers, they appear to be stained orange, the same colour as his bright wild hair and eyebrows. 

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And, contrary to what I thought growing up in the States, the tag on The Hatter’s hatband is not a size, but a price: ten shillings and six pence.

The March Hare

If anyone can match The Hatter for odd behaviour, it’s The March Hare. Like hatters, March hares were also labelled ‘mad’, and this is likely attributed to their mating behaviour in the breeding season around March.

Hares can be spotted jumping about wildly, often straight into the air, kicking out violently and boxing with other hares. All part of the normal mating game for the hares, but a curious behaviour to catch them at if you happen to think of hares as docile and meek animals.

The Cheshire Cat

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“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice, “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”

This beaming feline has the most difficult origins to pin down, maybe rightly so considering it can disappear at will. Some believe the inspiration came from signs, carvings, and building decorations, but those theories don’t explain the vanishing nature of the cat.

What makes more sense to us is an explanation that dates back to Roman times and was continued into Carroll’s day. It’s believed Cheshire cheese was formed into animal shapes including a cat, and the practice of the time was to remove sections of the cheese, as it was consumed, from the tail back through the body, which, at some point would leave you with only the head to finish off.

A big, grinning head of cheese. How appetising! Sounds nearly as tempting as mock turtle soup.

And there we have it, three residents of Wonderland with enigmatic origins that will forever remain as impenetrable as the unsolvable riddle: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

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Have theories of your own? Share them in the comments…

Alice In Wonderland is on Disney DVD and Blu-ray from Friday 4th June.