Anthony Trollope, whose 200th birthday was celebrated in 2015, stands alongside Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thomas Hardy as one of the great Victorian novelists.
Between 1847 and 1882, the prolific Trollope wrote 47 novels, including six that comprise The Chronicles of Barsetshire and six that make up the Palliser series. As if that were not enough to occupy his time, he also produced several collections of short stories, 18 works of non-fiction, two plays and at least seven travel books – one of them about a visit to Iceland (1878).
The American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne praised The Chronicles of Barsetshire for their realism, “as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business.” Trollope himself – an English Balzac with a sharp eye for human foibles, especially those of the clergy of his time – considered The Last Chronicle of Barset the best of his novels. It is a tragicomedy in which the outrageous Mrs Proudie, the bishop’s wife familiar from Barchester Towers, reappears in all her bitter glory and goes to her heavenly reward.
Much of the plot in The Chronicles of Barsetshire, which appeared in book form in 1867, revolves around whether absent-minded Mr Crawley, Perpetual Curate of Hogglestock, “stole” a cheque for twenty pounds that he discovered in his desk. The question of Mr Crawley’s state of mind is a recurring topic among the denizens of Barchester and its surrounding villages.
Mr Crawley is committed for trial at the local assizes and Mr Robarts, another clergyman, tries to help by providing him with legal counsel. Mr Robarts discusses the matter with the lawyer Mr Walker, who proposes a plea of temporary insanity. But, says Mr Walker, “The real truth is, Mr Robarts, he is as mad as a hatter.”
The modern reader recognises the phrase “mad as a hatter” from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, two years before The Last Chronicle. The Hatter is first mentioned by the Cheshire cat, which tells Alice, “In that direction lives a Hatter, and in that direction lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
For Carroll and Trollope, the expression was commonplace. It seems that in 18th and 19th century England, mercury was used in the production of felt and felt was used to make hats. This was the main trade in Stockport (where Carroll grew up and where, today, there is a museum called the Hat Works) and it was not unusual for hatters to be affected by mercury poisoning. Its symptoms included severe and uncontrollable muscle tremors and twitching limbs, called “hatter’s shakes”, distorted vision and confused speech.
Equally, however, the phrase may originate in the Anglo-Saxon word atter meaning venom and related to “adder”, the common name for the only poisonous snake in Britain. The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1977) favours this derivation because “mad as a hatter” was known before hat-making became a recognized trade.
Anthony Trollope, who got to know Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s alter ego) in late 1869, used the phrase “mad as a hatter” to convey the mental turmoil of the poverty-stricken Mr Crawley, pitilessly persecuted by the bishop’s wife. Yet, it more aptly describes Mrs Proudie herself, of whom Trollope wrote in An Autobiography (1883):
“It was not only that she was a tyrant, a bully, a would-be priestess, a very vulgar woman, and one who would send headlong to the nethermost pit all who disagreed with her; but that at the same time she was conscientious, by no means a hypocrite, really believing in the brimstone which she threatened, and anxious to save the souls around her from its horrors. And as her tyranny increased so did the bitterness of the moments of her repentance increase, in that she knew herself to be a tyrant – till that bitterness killed her.”