Eating and drinking in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Children's author Philip Ardagh looks at how Lewis Carroll transforms the highly-ritualised, rule-bound nature of 19th-century mealtimes into the madcap hilarity of the Hatter's tea party.
From the very beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, food and drink play an important role. Alice follows a white rabbit into his rabbit hole and finds herself falling down a well. Yet she still manages to snatch a jar marked ORANGE MARMALADE and is clearly disappointed when she discovers it’s empty. Wondering how long she’ll fall for, her main concern is whether the others will remember to give Dinah the cat her ‘saucer of milk at tea-time’ (ch. 1). 

By far the most famous meal of Alice’s adventures, though, is the Mad Hatter’s tea party. To the modern reader, the tea party comes across as madcap chaos, with everyone arguing and changing places, a dozing dormouse, meaningless riddles, stories of three sisters living at the bottom of a treacle well and much, much silliness. In just over 2,200 words, Carroll has created a set-piece of the absurd, that’s been reinvented and recreated in everything from films to strip cartoons for each new generation.

The Nursery Alice

The Nursery Alice [page: 39]

The Mad Hatter’s tea party, from the colour illustrated Nursery Alice, 1890.

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But the effect on a Victorian reader would have been far more profound because living in Victorian society was all about following rules. And few things in daily life had more rules than eating.

This is clearly illustrated by the number of pages given over to rules on dining in etiquette books such as Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society. First published 1834, it ran to an impressive 28 editions up to 1854, which goes to show how much people wanted to get things RIGHT. One of my favourite pieces of food-related etiquette contained between its covers is: ‘You cannot use your knife or fork or teeth too quietly'.

Hints on Etiquette

Set of rules for dining from Hints on Etiquette, 1854. It includes rules on what and how to eat and drink to avoid appearing ‘ignorant’ or ‘vulgar’.

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In fact, in 1855, the 23 year old Lewis Carroll published his own ‘Hints for Etiquette; Or, Dining Out Made Easy’, a humorous article that satirised these DOs and DON’Ts. Such droll warnings included:

‘On meat being placed before you, there is no possible objection to your eating it…’ and ‘As a general rule, do not kick the shins of the opposite gentleman under the table, if personally unacquainted with him; your pleasantry is liable to be misunderstood a circumstance at all times unpleasant’.

Lewis Carroll juvenilia: 'Hints for Etiquette'

Lewis Carroll’s satire of etiquette books, ‘Hints for Etiquette; or, Dining Out Made Easy’, written in 1855.

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In middle- and upper-class households, children rarely ate with adults and a very important meal in their eyes (and tummies) was the nursery tea. The meal would be overseen by an adult – probably the nanny paid to look after them or, if Mother was there, by Mother herself – who would decide who got to eat what and when.

…yet the Mad Hatter’s Tea party of Chapter 7 seems to break just about all the rules. Firstly, the Dormouse is asleep at the table. Bad form. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare are resting their elbows on him. Resting elbows anywhere was strictly forbidden. The guests are not sitting in an orderly fashion around the table, but are all crowded in one corner. One’s position at the table was vitally important.

The Hatter and the Hare are shouting. They should, no doubt, be chewing silently. And that’s just in the OPENING TWO PARAGRAPHS. And what does Alice do when she arrives? She sits down uninvited. Shock horror!

When we discover that the Mad Hatter has put the best butter into the clockwork of his pocket watch (which he’s now dipping in his tea), we realise that the very fabric of Victorian society is under threat! Dirty cups and plates aren’t washed, simply left. A spoon is used to point with, a milk-jug knocked over. There’s singing, shouting, making of ‘personal remarks’ and commotion.

As for pouring hot tea on another’s nose, this, under more conventional circumstances, would have led to a child being sent to bed without so much as another bite to eat. And the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse do behave like children, with the Dormouse as the youngest, sleepy, sibling.

When Alice leaves, before the tea is over, she sees the Mad Hatter and the March Hare attempting to stuff the poor Dormouse into the teapot. The rulebook of Victorian dining etiquette seems not only to have been ripped up, but jammed into the mouth and unceremoniously swallowed.

Although the Victorians may not have expected to find a mouse in their teapots, throughout the 19th century there were very real concerns about what exactly was in their food. Unscrupulous bakers had been found putting anything from floor sweepings to arsenic in their flour to bulk out their bread. Children’s sweets sometimes contained plaster of Paris.
In the 1850s food adulteration was widely investigated by a government committee, and heavily reported in national newspapers. The practice became a public health concern, resulting in mass outrage and a determination that something should be done. Alice was written in 1862 amid all this anxiety, so there’s a distinct possibility these contemporary revelations influenced how Carroll treats food in the novel. Of all the food and drink that appears on Alice’s pages, much of it is adulterated in some way: tulip bulbs are mixed up with onions, and tarts and soups are contaminated with sneeze-inducing ground pepper.

And let’s not forget one of the greatest food and drink taboos which still stands today: drinking the contents of a bottle of unidentified liquid. But Alice does just that. Her excuse? The label on the bottle says DRINK ME. The two words leap off the page of Carroll’s original manuscript.

The consequence? She shrinks. The solution? To eat the cake with EAT ME on it, which makes her grow back and then taller still.

Oh dear. 

In Alice’s Wonderland, eating was fraught with dangers.

'Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland [folio: 5r]

‘DRINK ME’ from Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript version of the story, ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’, 1862-64.

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  • Philip Ardagh
  • Philip Ardagh is an award-winning children’s author and currently the only recipient of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to have been shortlisted a second time.

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