In her new book, The Mad Hatter: The Role of Mercury in the Life of Lewis Carroll, my friend Mary Hammond explores Lewis Carroll and the origin of his Alice in Wonderland character, the Hatter.
The secret of using mercury in felt hat manufacture came to England in the late 1700s, causing hatters to suffer the toxic effects of long term mercury exposure. Because we now know that mercury poisoning caused hatters to become emotionally and mentally disturbed, when we think of Lewis Carroll’s hatter, we often assume that Carroll’s hatter was intended to be suffering from mercury poisoning. This assumption has become so deeply rooted in our culture that when Johnny Depp acted out his hatter role in the latest Alice in Wonderland movie, he suggested that the character be portrayed as orange, a homage to one of the early names for use of mercury in hat making, “carrotage.”
But evidence suggests that the academic classes had no understanding that hat makers were suffering from mercury poisoning. And if Carroll’s hatter was not intended to be suffering from mercury poisoning, why was he so crazy? Well, to start with, it wasn’t only hatters who were exposed to toxic amounts of mercury in the 1800s. Mercury was extremely prevalent. It was even used in after dinner pills to stave off indigestion.
Could it be that Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter was based on himself? Mary presents evidence that the Hatter reflects Carroll’s insight into his own psyche. Mary also solves the riddle:
Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because a raven is nevar backwards and a writing desk is always for words.
The Mad Hatter: The Role of Mercury in the Life of Lewis Carroll is available for FREE on kindle for the next four days. It makes for fascinating weekend reading.