Before the Hatter Went Mad
In the summer of 2010, my town put on a children's theater production. I participated in these little shows every year, hoping each year that I would land a leading role—or at least a part with lines. That year, it was “Alice in Wonderland,” and I played a singing daffodil in an ensemble. Though the part was largely underwhelming, I starkly remember standing off stage and watching the director step into the role of the Hatter. I was captivated watching him slide into character, morphing from a normal guy into lovable madness. What if the Hatter hadn't always been mad? I thought as I watched him nag the Queen of Hearts. Who would he have been before? And what happened to him?
And then this story came to me. It's not a happy story, but it felt right. The kind of story he wouldn't remember.
I was 15 when I wrote this down during a summer afternoon. It's been edited a little as I grew in my writing, but then I hit a point when the story refused to change. This was written for my 15-year-old heart, and the writer I am now respects that. Over the years, the story has taken on a life of its own—winning a contest, edited by HarperCollins, published in a school’s literary journal, and becoming a movie script—and it's taken off with me hanging onto its ratty green coattails.
The Mad Hatter is the most beloved hatter of all time with his loveable, childlike character. It’s easy to believe he was always like that, forever having tea with two very mad friends—but there had to be more to him than that. Who was he before Alice tumbled into Wonderland? Before he found himself in Wonderland, before mercury poisoning played a cruel game with his mind and left it in shambles?
His name was John Gray. He came from a wealthy London family and had absolutely no ambition of ever becoming a hatter. He was handsome with olive skin, and dark brown hair that matched his eyes. Courteous, shy, and always holding his personal feelings in check, he was set for an easy climb up society’s social ladder. He was studying to become a solicitor like his father, and had the persistence to make a successful one.
John owned only one hat, a black top hat with a black silk ribbon around the bottom, and he never walked into the hat shop on Oxford Street unless he needed it repaired in some way. No one in town was a close friend of the Mr. Quiggly, the hatter, for he had gone mad long before anyone could recall, and John did his best to avoid him.
“Mr. Gray!” the hatter cried in a broken voice on those rare occurrences when John stepped into his shop. The shop itself displayed a dizzying burst of colors that made John claustrophobic. “It’s so good to see you!” Then he would wind his way around numerous racks of unorganized hats to extend his pale, gnarled hand for a handshake, a thimble firmly shoved onto the tip of his finger.
John would simply hand over his hat, say what needed to be fixed, and wait silently for the hatter to mend it.
“Mr. Gray,” Mr. Quiggly would slur, oblivious of John’s discomfort. “Have you any idea why a raven is like a writing desk?”
John would shake his head with exasperation. “No. That’s a foolish question with no answer. Only children use riddles.”
The hatter never heard his remarks. “You see, it’s been bothering me, lately. I must know the answer!”
John faced Mr. Quiggly’s mad ramblings with silence, then take his finished hat, pay the hatter, and leave the store.
While he was usually very stoic, John’s deepest emotions were reserved for Alice Jennings, with whom he had been well acquainted since childhood. Many things about her attracted John. She was kindhearted and easily charmed everyone she met. And she was beautiful—her blue eyes were the color of a cloudless sky and her blond curls that fell to her waist when they weren’t elegantly pinned up.
For a long time, Alice secretly hoped John would make her an offer of marriage, but she didn’t approach the subject. Never had she seen her quiet John taken by surprise, and she wouldn’t want to offend him, so she waited patiently for him to present a ring and ask for her hand.
One summer afternoon, while John was having tea in his mother’s parlor, Alice was shown in. After politely greeting John’s mother, Alice took her seat on the white sofa next to John, and took his hand.
He set down his tea and returned her smile. “What is the matter, Alice?”
She straightened her back and let her eyes roam lazily around the blue parlor. “I just wanted to see you, that’s all.”
John chuckled quietly and glanced out the window. The sky was overcast and gray, threatening to drop cold beads of water on unsuspecting heads.
“John . . . ,” Alice murmured, bringing his attention back to her. At the last moment, she changed her mind about what she would say. Then what was the point of coming here, she wondered, if I’ve decided not to bring it up? Now she would look like a complete fool. “I love you.” She bit her lips together and dropped her eyes to her lap, her hands loosening their grip on John’s fingers.
“I love you too, Alice.” His voice was again empty of the fervor Alice had always wanted to hear when John said those words. Disappointed, she sighed and tried to resist slumping her shoulders. She didn’t want him to just tell her he loved her. She wanted conviction, commitment.
John studied her, suppressing an uncharacteristic smirk. He resituated himself on the couch, turning more toward her. “Alice . . . ,” he murmured, letting his voice trail off. He didn’t meet her eyes when she looked up.
“I’ve been thinking . . . about us,” he said.
“What about us?” she pressed, trying to keep from sounding too eager.
He finally met her gaze, his face expertly composed. “I saw your father the other day. We spoke briefly, and I asked him something that’s been on my mind for quite a while.”
Alice took a deep breath. “And?” she wondered, urging him on. “What did you ask?”
John’s composure cracked, giving way to his smile. “I asked him for your hand, that is, if you feel you’d like to give it.”
Alice beamed, her heart fluttering. “Of course, John! You shouldn’t even have to ask to know I’d say yes!” John pulled a diamond ring from a small box in his pocket and slid it onto her finger. She was, no doubt, the happiest girl in the whole world.
Alice planned to busy herself in the next few months with preparations for their coming wedding while John would study for school. And because of his serious disposition, he was fine with witnessing Alice’s excitement, rather than expressing any of his own. Not to say he wasn’t, of course, because he was looking forward to the day. He even took the liberty to look at houses they could buy and live in once they were married. There was a cottage close to town that was the perfect size for them, and Alice adored the choice, saying it reminded her of a fairy tale.
John looked forward to the wedding, but shortly after the engagement he began to notice that his father and mother talked in hushed tones and often looked distressed. Eventually, they confronted him, telling him their wealth was gone due to a dishonest accountant. The Grays sold the house, took whatever money they could scrounge up from what they owned, and put it toward the debts they suddenly found themselves collecting.
“How will I pay for my schooling?” John worried to his father. “I can’t provide for Alice without money, and I need a good job with good pay to do that. Surely we have something? Another account?”
Mr. Gray shook his head.
“Alice will understand,” his mother assured him. “Everything will be fine.”
John shook his head. “No, it won’t. I wanted everything to be perfect for her. I wanted to be able to provide for her, but now I can’t finish school. What am I supposed to do? How will I tell Alice?”
John’s family, once so wealthy and respected, had come to ruin so quickly, and he was reluctant to tell Alice. Finally, at his parents’ urging, he went to tell his fiancée, fearful that she would turn him away if he was no longer able to provide. However, it turned out that he’d grossly misjudged her love for him.
“John,” she said. “I love you. And I won’t leave you just because you have no money. My parents are only middle class, but you, being of higher respect than me, still chose to marry me. So why should I not treat you the same?”
“But I can’t finish school,” he replied. “I won’t become a solicitor. I’ll never be able to provide for you like I would have if I had been eligible the job I hoped for.”
Alice shook her head. “I don’t care about money or possessions. As long as I can still have you, I’ll be content.”
Soon after, one of John’s former schoolmates approached him on the street.
“John,” he said, “it’s so good to see you. Did you hear that the old hatter on Oxford Street has died? It’s all over town. I suppose you won’t have to deal with the old man anymore!” He chuckled to himself.
At first John was relieved to not have to go see the madman anymore, but then an idea started to take root in his mind. “Is . . . is anyone taking over his business?”
His friend’s eyes narrowed. “What are you getting at?”
John shook his head. “Mere curiosity.”
“No, I do not believe there is anyone planning to take the shop.”
Desperate for money, he jumped at the opportunity and became the new hatteron Oxford Street. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was something.
“I won’t work there forever,” he told his fiancée when she expressed concern. “I’ll be out of there as soon as I know I have another plan worked out for my life. Our life.”
“But hatters go mad!” she argued. “They always do.”
“I promise I won’t go mad,” he assured her. “I won’t be there any longer than I need to be. And who knows? It might actually be fun.” He smiled at her, trying to lighten the mood.
“John, I fear you’re already mad,” she teased, reaching out to ruffle his hair. He dodged her hand, chuckling, though he could see the fear and concern behind her smile.
Out of options, John worked in the dank and dusty old hat shop day after day, making and selling hats, once he learned how. The wages were terrible, but better than nothing, and John knew that he would soon have hat-making under his belt. He eventually grew to enjoy it, though his dream of being a solicitor still lingered.
When the time came, and a position opened, he took a second job as a solicitor’s assistant, hoping to come a few steps closer to becoming a solicitor himself. He was fine for the first couple of months, but was soon fired because the man for whom he was working claimed that John expressed strange behavior unsuitable for the position he wished to hold, citing confusion and irritability over seemingly inconsequential things. John was unaware of what he’d done to justify this. Alice didn’t think he was any different, and neither did his parents.
Nevertheless John returned to the hat shop on Oxford Street. It became his life; all he ever thought about was hats and what styles to make next. And when Alice’s birthday came around on the sixth of October, John presented her with a hat made of white lace with a blue satin bow.
“Oh, John!” she said, awestruck. She held it up and turned it around. “It’s beautiful!”
John’s pale face brightened. “I’m so happy that you like it,” he said in voice that had been slightly deeper six months before. But to Alice and the Grays, John was the same John he’d always been, if not more open.
However, after Alice’s birthday, John Gray slowly began to lose touch with the people he knew well. Cooped up in his shop with his beloved hats, he was unaware of everything: the days passing, the people in his shop, his friends and family falling away. It was where he loved to be because, like the hatter before him, his shop was his own separate world. Colors and textures covered every surface, laced with tendrils of mercury that befriended the hatter and poisoned his mind.
Winter faded into spring, and one rainy afternoon, John was busy at his shop making his hats, and all was quiet. When the door opened, John jumped and whirled around to find Alice standing by the door. Her hair was piled upon her head in ringlets made heavy with rain. Rivers of water ran down her long coat and dripped into small puddles at her feet. She pulled her coat tightly around her, shivering in the entrance of her fiancé’s shop.
“Alice!” he cried. “It’s so good to see you, my darling!”
She leaned away as he tried to kiss her. “Have you any idea what day it is?” she asked.
“Thursday, John,” she corrected miserably.
“Ah . . .” He paused before holding up his hand, his index finger extended straight up with a thimble capping the top. “I’ve been thinking. Do you know why a raven is like a writing desk? Someone asked me once, but I cannot remember who . . .”
Tears welled in her eyes. “John, please no,” she whispered. “Please, not my John.”
He sat at his sewing machine and started making new stitches in his hat as if Alice had never walked in, muttering to himself, “A raven is black. A desk is made of wood. A raven, if made of a desk would be like wood, but a desk is not like a bird. Not at all. If a feather were like a raven, then a desk would be like it in the same way. It’s Monday. I think not. Thursday. No, hatter, no, no, no!” he yelled, pounding the table. “No room! No room!”
He turned when he heard Alice whimper. “Can you not see what I am wearing?” she asked quietly, taking off her coat to reveal a white lace dress.
“What about it?” John asked, turning back to his sewing machine.
“You missed our wedding!” she cried. “You weren’t there! You’ve gone mad and forgotten about me!”
John froze. Suddenly, he stood, knocking over his chair. “I have not forgotten about you. I do not forget about things!” He turned to lock Alice in his unfocused gaze.
“You didn’t even come to your own wedding.”
He offhandedly inspected a hat on a stand. “That was today, was it?” he asked, his words slurred.
“Yes,” she replied in a small voice.
He stretched a piece of ribbon out in front of him, unintentionally blocking Alice from his view. “Terribly sorry, darling. I mustn’t forget the children again.”
“We have no children,” she whispered as he turned to hold the ribbon against a mannequin’s head. “I had hoped that we might, but you have . . . you have gone mad. I didn’t want to believe you had come to this, but I can’t ignore it any longer. I can’t pretend that the plans we made still exist in your mind. You are not John. You’re sick. Look how pale your skin has become,” she said, reaching out to touch his cheek. Her bloodshot eyes flicked upward. “And your hair is so thin . . .” He leaned away and she pulled her hand back. “I want to help you. Please, stop making hats, and come away with me. Perhaps we can cure you! Or I can just care for you. Please.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Cure me? Cure me of what? How can you try to pull me away from my hats? There is nothing wrong with me, Alice.”
She folded her hands beneath her chin. “I had hoped that maybe we could find you help. Maybe we could help you get better.” She shook her head. “John, you’ve become a mad hatter.”
Crying softly, Alice took off her ring and set in on a table. She shrugged on her coat and walked out of the shop, hopeless and heartbroken.
John returned to his work as though nothing had happened.
The next day, he hardly had any recollection of what had happened—as if it were a dream. But with what little he understood of it, his tender heart broke and he went about his shop in a rage, destroying his beautiful hats. Twice he thought he saw Alice in his shop, picking up one of the ruined hats or removing her ring, but when he blinked, she disappeared. He only knew she was gone, though he couldn’t figure out why or when or where to.
John’s once brilliant mind was in shambles. He found his old top hat, the only one he had ever really owned, fixed it up to make the color a vibrant green, and tied another silk ribbon around the bottom in which he slid the edge of a price tag that held the numbers ten and six, a dash separating the two—Alice’s birthday; a subtle reminder so he might never forget her no matter how mad he was.
The hatter carefully placed the hat on his head. His bottom lip slipped between his teeth, like a child having lost something dear. As his gaze traveled along the upturned hat racks, his heart sank. All his beautiful hats . . .
After locking up the shop for the night, John Gray, insane with depression and poison, ambled down the street, his face drawn, eyes focused on the slippery cobblestones beneath his feet. He hadn’t the slightest idea where he was going, but he didn’t mind. Into a field he wandered, and by a tree, he tripped and fell down a rabbit hole. He fell and fell before finally hitting the ground below.
John raised his head. Colors cascaded his vision, impressing upon his brain and causing him to grin. Flowering plants the size of small horses grew around him, butterflies chasing each other between them. Magnificent birds with rainbow feathers hopped through the bushes, jumped into the air, and soared through the trees that stretched their long arms into the clouds, swaying back and forth in a steady waltz with the wind. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the sounds of a sea, the waves crashing over one another in their race to the shore.
“How wonderful,” John mused to himself.
“Who are you?” A small dormouse and a hare emerged from the bushes, the dormouse being the one that spoke. They were both dressed in waistcoats tailored to fit them, but this didn’t strike John as odd. They watched him, waiting for him to speak.
“Mad Hatter,” he muttered, repeating the last words Alice Jennings had said to him. A thought suddenly occurred to him, and he held up thimble-capped finger. “Have you any idea why a raven is like a writing desk?”
The hare wrung his ears, his eyes flicking nervously. “We are late for tea!” he exclaimed as he pulled out a broken pocket watch and showed the face to the mouse and then to John.
“It seems we are,” said John. Sprawled out on the ground since his fall, he finally stood up, swaying clumsily. His hair, splotched with shades of white and brown, stuck out from the bottom of his hat at odd angles, and his coat was dusted with bits of earth.
A head appeared out of thin air. It was that of a cat who grinned as wide as a crescent moon. A striped body followed, hovering feet from the ground. The hare let out a shout of fright and jumped behind John, shaking.
John snickered delightedly and straightened his hat.
With only a broken pocket watch stopped a six o’clock, the Mouse, the Hare, and the Hatter were immersed in a never ending tea party. It was time for tea whenever they checked the watch, never leaving enough time to do anything else. It’s unknown how many years were spent at this single party, but since everyone was so mad, it didn’t matter.
The Mad Hatter, as he came to be called, was happy as far as he knew. But his mind was the closest to sane it had been in years when a small girl appeared in a blue dress and pinafore. Her blond curls hung down her back, and big, blue eyes that were like the sky on a cloudless day jumped from the hare to the mouse before settling on the hatter.
“No room! No room!” the hare and the mouse cried as she approached the table.
John Gray sat up in his chair and leaned forward, his head tilted to the side. Visions of a forgotten girl in a white dress glimmered faintly in his mind.
Hope drove him to ask, “Who might you be?”
The little girl regarded him for a moment. Then she answered, “I'm Alice.”