Alice in the asylum: Wonderland, Lewis Carroll and the real mad tea parties of the Victorian era
“Textbook case of female hysteria!” concludes a creepily grinning lab-coated medical professional in Disney’s anxiously anticipated new animated Alice film, Alice Through The Looking Glass.
It’s certainly not the first time Alice has been linked with madness. American McGee’s Alice video games start off in an asylum, and many early reviews point out the similarity of the Alice sequel to Disney’s 1985 Return to Oz, in which Alice’s American counterpart Dorothy is likewise transferred to a rather Victorian-looking madhouse for her fantastical dreams.
The connection doesn’t come from nowhere. Lewis Carroll’s original novels are littered with references to madness, many of which have acquired a life of their own, especially the Mad Hatter’s tea party. There is barely a politician in recent history that has not been recast as one of its participants and adorned with an oversized hat labelled 10/6. And it’s in this spirit that Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass kicks us off into a new adventure: Alice, having escaped the asylum through a large mirror, must save the Hatter by going back in time.
Madness has been a popular topic ever since the infamous Bethlem Asylum opened its doors to visitors in the 17th century. Then, crowds flocked to ogle at its terrifying conditions.
In turn, asylum inmates went round the houses to sing, often still covered in the straw they slept on, creating a stereotype that lives on in Alice. Carroll’s Mad Hatter sings the nonsensical “Twinkle, twinkle little bat”. And “to have straw on one’s head” marked not only William Shakespeare’s King Lear as mad, but also John Tenniel’s depiction of Carroll’s March Hare.
With the industrial revolution, and the extremely poor working conditions that came with it, populations in so-called “pauper lunatic asylums” for the working class sky-rocketed. Asylum patients usually reflected the local industries, and most frequently included workers of the shoe and textile industries, weavers, tailors, and (you guessed it) hatters. Although patients were then far more often overworked, consumptive or starved, than affected by mercury-poisoning.
Asylum tea parties
One of the officers of the Lunacy Commission, the body for asylum supervision, was, in fact, Lewis Carroll’s uncle Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, whose work offers stunning insights into the madness in Alice. Instead of incarceration and straitjackets, progressive Victorian psychiatrists trialled the so-called “non-restraint system”. Introducing farming and gardening, needlework and mending to keep inmates occupied, they even sold produce to generate extra income for their institutions.
Dances and concerts were held for entertainment, and presented to the outside world as spectacles. Visitors admired the re-socialisation of those previously thought incurable – as even Charles Dickens reported. Such activities mirrored the customs and morals of Victorian high society: they even included tea parties. A report from the York Retreat, an institution run by an early pioneer of the non-restraint method, Samuel Tuke, is not altogether dissimilar to Carroll’s tea party:
The female superintendent […] occasionally gives a general invitation to the patients, to a tea party. All who attend, dress in their best clothes, and vie with each other in politeness and propriety. The best fare is provided, and the visitors are treated with all the attention of strangers […] The patients control, in a wonderful degree, their different propensities; and the scene is at once curious, and affectingly gratifying.
Carroll himself visited such an asylum at least once, and, as I explored in a recent article, had plenty of contact with psychiatric professionals.
‘All mad here?’
Modern historians, such as Elaine Showalter in her book The Female Malady, have framed these then progressive methods more critically, illuminating how they were instigated by men from the upper strata of society and imposed gender and class norms, treating the mentally ill like children.
To Carroll, these tensions offered the potential for moral criticism. Alice undermines the rigid, patronising moral structures of the Victorian adult world, dismissing them as “nothing but a pack of cards”. To Disney scriptwriter Linda Woolverton, they provide the stuff her gender criticism is made of. Re-introducing Alice as a business-minded sea captain, she “did a lot of research on Victorian mores, on how young girls were supposed to behave, and then did exactly the opposite”.
And madness, as a threat to any “rational” status quo, comes in handy. In the Victorian age of science and empiricism, madness was felt as a threat to rationality. Dreaming was feared by some prominent Victorian psychologists as a pre-stage of madness; the line between waking, dreaming, and madness was blurred (Wonderland is, of course, a dream).
In Carroll’s looking glass, this border is embodied in the mirror. Like the lens of the eye that separates the manifest, rational world, from the world of our mind, transcending the looking glass transports us into an immaterial world, a space where the impossible becomes possible – including time travel, overturning gender norms and professional and social restrictions.
Female hysteria was believed to originate from an over-stimulation of the imagination, the creative mental faculty taking over. So the mental state of Alice in no way originated in the consumption of psychedelic drugs, as much as Pink’s version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit may hint at it.
But it is perhaps this historical link with madness, as a literary device to challenge social norms, that makes Alice relevant to us in the 21st century. The greatest potential of Disney’s newest Alice adventure certainly lies in its attempt to redefine identities and challenge the restrictiveness of past and existing systems. With this in mind, we are probably all mad here.