When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, Lewis Carroll became a household name. Brasenose graduate student Franziska E. Kohlt explores how his engagement with Victorian lunatic asylums informed his popular works.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, assisted self portrait, 2nd June 1857Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, assisted self portrait, 2nd June 1857 at Oxford

By Matt Pickles 

With the Mad Hatter returning to cinemas in Disney's ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Brasenose graduate student Franziska E. Kohlt reveals the influences on Lewis Carroll’s portrayal of insanity in the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Kohlt has researched his close relationship with his uncle, Commissioner in Lunacy Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge. A well-connected barrister, Skeffington was responsible for inspecting lunatic asylums; many of his psychiatric colleagues became friends of Carroll’s too.

Skeffington also had a keen interest in photography, which he passed on to Carroll. It was through this hobby that Carroll came into contact with a friend of his uncle’s, Dr Hugh Welch Diamond of the Surrey lunatic asylum, who believed that photography had an important role to play in diagnosing and recording mental illness. According to contemporary theories, the state of one’s mind was reflected in one’s appearance – which made photographs a highly useful tool.Lewis Carroll and his family at Croft Rectory probably by Robert Wilfred Skeffington LutwidgeLewis Carroll and his family at Croft Rectory, probably taken by his uncle Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge

Kohlt reflects: 'Carroll's engagement with Diamond’s work illustrates how the influence of Skeffington and his profession were multifaceted in their nature and consequently found their way into his nephew’s writing via indirect routes. It further indicates how Skeffington’s professional contacts provided Carroll with the opportunity to witness professional practices first hand.'http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13555502.2016.1167767Kohlt's work illuminates the psychiatric origins of the ‘Mad Tea-Party’ and characters such as the 'Mad Hatter'

Through his contacts, Carroll developed an understanding of the practical aspects of psychiatric practice. The Mad Tea-Party in Alice’s Adventures was inspired directly by the tea parties held in asylums as ‘therapeutic entertainments.’ ‘That the types of insanity of the tea-party’s members draw on popular imagery of insanity is made explicit at the earliest instance when the Cheshire Cat informs Alice they are ‘both mad’,’ she writes.This stone carving of characters from Lewis Carol's Through the Looking Glass, is one of nine new grotesques added to the Bodleian facade.This carving of characters from Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking Glass is one of nine new grotesques added to the Bodleian facade

Carroll was also very aware of the class and wealth distinctions between ‘lunatics’ and ‘pauper lunatics,’ which had so much bearing on where and how a Victorian patient was treated. Kohlt feels that the Mad Hatter character ‘illustrates vividly’ the case of a typical pauper lunatic.

'Carroll's Hatter is consistent with Victorian asylum environments in other aspects, as impoverished hatters and other manual workers and artisans were frequently to be found among a pauper lunatic asylum’s population.'

Writers such as Carroll played an important role in raising public awareness of psychiatry, and they shaped the popular image of insanity through their characters. She argues that he created far more than a children's novel: 'Alice stands in dialogue with both psychiatric practice and popular perceptions of insanity'.

Read more at Oxford Today:

Bodleian Treasures: Oscar Wilde's undergraduate port bill to CS Lewis' Narnia map

Health and safety in Tudor England

Images © Bodleian Libraries, Private Collection, Christ Church Library, National Portrait Gallery