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.”