Rabbits are often associated with the months of March and April, due to role the ‘Easter Bunny’ plays in delivering chocolate to children at Easter. However, the animal which most resembles the rabbit – the hare – also comes to mind in March, thanks to the English expression “as mad as a March hare”. This phrase was popularised in the late 19th century by Lewis Carroll’s inclusion of the character, the March Hare, in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, but it was in existence long before that, having been used by poets such as John Skelton in the sixteenth century.
The origin of the idiom is straightforward: the hare’s breeding season is around the month of March, when its behaviour becomes unusually excited and energetic, causing the hare to jump into the air and dart around for no apparent reason. Lewis Carroll’s protagonist comments, before her first meeting with the March Hare, “perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.” (Chap. 6)
Now on display in the foyer of the Berkeley Library are three very different images of hares, from the 17th and 20th centuries.These include Matthaeus Merian’s engraving for John Jonston’s “Historia animalis de quadrupedibus”, showing a common hare as well as a species of a hare with horns which by the end of the 18th century had been proved not in fact to exist.
Jonston’s work was published thirty years after another important book about animals, by Conrad Gesner, whose illustration of a hare is also shown here.
The other pictures of hares which can be viewed in the case at the entrance to the Berkeley Library are one of Agnes Miller Parker’s illustrations for H.E. Bates book “Through the woods” (London, 1936) and Rene Cloke’s colourful depiction of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in the picture-book version of “Alice in Wonderland” published by Dean in 1969.