Dickens and Wittles

By Sue Roe

Here is the first of our blogs about literary food. We’ll post one daily throughout Heritage Open Days 2021, and maybe a few afterwards, as there is plenty to say about the subject.

Dickens was one of the most common authors mentioned by Reading Sheffield interviewees. Sometimes their parents had subscribed to a newspaper like the Daily Herald to get a complete set, like Frank and Eva. Some loved the length and detail of the books though some found them too wordy. Florence found that they ‘bored her to death’. However the majority found them inspiring, especially his depiction of the suffering of the poor.

Food plays an important part in many of the novels of Dickens – this is not surprising given his childhood experience of poverty and insecurity. Despite his subsequent rise to fame and fortune, he doesn’t seem to have forgotten his time in the blacking factory or his family’s time in the debtors’ prison. In his books there are feasts, snacks, impromptu dinners. References to food help to highlight social ills and reveal internal turmoil.

The treatment of the poor and the unwanted was a subject dear to his heart. Oliver’s desperate plea is well known:

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper.

Oliver Twist (1838), chapter 2.

Oliver asking for more, by George Cruikshank, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly the dosing of the boys of Dotheboys Hall with brimstone and treacle gives Nicholas Nickleby an early indication of how Mr and Mrs Squeers run the school.

The Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall, by Hablot Browne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Food or the lack of it can highlight even the plight of the convict on the run from the hulks.

When Pip meets Magwitch in the opening chapter of Great Expectations on Christmas Eve, the convict quizzes him on the two necessities:

‘Do you know what a file is?’ … ‘And you know what wittles is?’

The terrible stranger in the churchyard, by F W Pailthorpe. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

There is a cannibalistic flavour to this cross questioning – Magwich threatens to have Pip’s heart and liver if he doesn’t deliver – they will be ‘tore out, roasted and ate’! When he gets home he resorts to hiding his slice of bread and butter for the convict down the leg of his trousers in case he can’t find anything else. That gets him into more trouble with Mrs Joe: she doses him with tar water for ‘bolting’ his food. Getting up early he proceeds to rob the pantry:

Some bread, some rind of cheese, about half a jar of mincemeat … some brandy from a stone bottle … a meat bone with very little on it, and a beautiful round compact pork pie.

Great Expectations (1861), chapter 2.

All this he duly delivers to the convict. On Christmas Day there was a splendid dinner planned:

… a leg of pickled pork and greens and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince pie had been made … and the pudding was already on the boil.

Great Expectations, chapter 4.

Pip’s larceny is about to be revealed when he is rescued by the timely arrival of the militia who need Joe’s skills as a blacksmith. Fortunately for Pip when Magwich is re-captured he confesses to the theft of the food and drink.

Dickens was clearly fond of pies. In Our Mutual Friend (1865) Mr Boffin has invited the unscrupulous Silas Wegg home to read a series of history books to him. Alas Boffin can’t read. Wegg spots a pie on the shelf:

Do my eyes deceive me, or is that object up there a – a pie? It can’t be a pie.’ … ‘It’s a veal and ham pie,’ said Mr. Boffin. … ‘And it would be hard, sir, to name the pie that is a better pie than a weal and hammer,’ said Mr Wegg …

‘It would be hard to name a pie that is better than weal and ham … and meaty jelly … is very mellering to the organ. Mr Wegg did not say what organ…”

Our Mutual Friend, chapter 5.

Sam Weller makes a similar observation in The Pickwick Papers (1837):

‘Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens…’

The Pickwick Papers, chapter 19.

Food often serves as a sombre metaphor – who can forget the tragedy of Miss Havisham with her wedding feast being devoured by mice and shrouded by cobwebs, a reflection of her broken heart and diseased mind. She asks Pip:

‘What do you think that is?…that, where those cobwebs are? …  It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!’

Great Expectations, chapter 11.

She continues:

‘On this day … long before you were born, this heap of decay … was brought here … The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeth than the teeth of mice have gnawed at me.’

Pip and Miss Havisham, by Charles Green. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

Dickens had certain professions in his sights: lawyers, politicians, the clergy and medical men. In The Pickwick Papers he satirises two hard drinking medical students: Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen. They have taken an apothecary’s shop in Bristol which is sinking into bankruptcy. They can still entertain Mr Winkle however:

… Bob Sawyer’s return was the immediate precursor of the arrival of a meat-pie [again!] from the baker’s, of which that gentleman insisted on his [Mr Winkle’s] staying to partake.

After dinner, Mr Bob Sawyer ordered in the largest mortar in the shop, and proceeded to brew a reeking jorum of rum-punch therein, stirring up and amalgamating the materials with a pestle in a very creditable and apothecary-like manner. Mr Sawyer, being a bachelor, had only one tumbler in the house, which was assigned to Mr Winkle as a compliment to the visitor, Mr Ben Allen being accommodated with a funnel with a cork in the narrow end, and Bob Sawyer contented himself with one of those wide-lipped crystal vessels inscribed with a variety of cabalistic characters, in which chemists are wont to measure out their liquid drugs in compounding prescriptions. These preliminaries adjusted, the punch was tasted, and pronounced excellent; and it having been arranged that Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen should be considered at liberty to fill twice to Mr. Winkle’s once, they started fair, with great satisfaction and good-fellowship.

The Pickwick Papers, chapter 38.
Conviviality at Bob Sawyer’s by Phiz (Hablot Browne). Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

Yet food can also be a source of joy and celebration, as it is in A Christmas Carol (1843) despite the misanthropic start. When Scrooge first meets Marley’s Ghost he dismisses him with a food -inspired joke:

‘… A slight disorder of the stomach … You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you …’

A Christmas Carol, Stave 1.

However with the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present his room is transformed and food plays a key part: a veritable cornucopia:

Heaped on the floor … were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch …

Scrooge’s Third Visitor, by John Leech. Public domain, via WikiArt.

The Spirit takes him to the home of Bob Cratchit, his clerk, where he sees all the Cratchits involved in preparing the Christmas Eve Dinner:

Mrs Cratchit made the gravy … Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce …

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3.

Their oven was too small for their goose so it was cooked at the baker’s as was the custom at the time. When it was collected:

There was never such a goose. … Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.

This was followed by the pudding which had been steaming in the copper in the backyard.

… Mrs Cratchit entered … with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball … blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly …

The Wonderful Pudding, by Sol Eytinge. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

The end of A Christmas Carol is well known. Scrooge is reformed; he sends the Cratchit  family the biggest turkey in the poulterer’s, and he raises Bob’s wages:

… I’ll raise you salary … and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop …

A Christmas Carol, Stave 5.

The Reformed Scrooge with Bob Cratchit, by Charles Green. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

In fact some credit Dickens and A Christmas Carol with inventing Christmas as we know it: plum pudding was common at that time of year but Eliza Acton was the first to name it Christmas Pudding, two years after the publication of the book.

In The Pickwick Papers food appears regularly: dinners, parties, picnics: all occasions of great conviviality and good humour.

Pickwick meets the Wardles when he is chasing his hat blown off by the wind.

Mr Pickwick in chase of his hat, by Robert Seymour. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

The members of the Pickwick club are invited to join their picnic which is unpacked from a large hamper by Joe the fat boy:

Now, Joe, knives and forks.’ The knives and forks were handed in, and the ladies and gentlemen inside, and Mr Winkle on the box, were each furnished with those useful instruments.

‘Plates, Joe, plates.’ A similar process employed in the distribution of the crockery.

‘Now, Joe, the fowls. Damn that boy; he’s gone to sleep again. Joe! Joe!’ (Sundry taps on the head with a stick, and the fat boy, with some difficulty, roused from his lethargy.) ‘Come, hand in the eatables.’

The Pickwick Papers, chapter 4.

On another occasion the Pickwick Club travel down for a wedding and to spend Christmas at Dingley Dell with the Wardles. Pickwick has purchased a huge cod-fish and half a dozen barrels of real native oysters for the festivities. There are wedding breakfasts, dinners, music, dancing, story-telling and games of Blind Man’s Bluff and Snapdragon.[1]

… and when fingers enough were burned with that and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a might bowl of wassail …

The Pickwick Papers, chapter 28.

Christmas at Mr Wardle’s, by Phiz (Hablot Browne). Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

Here, by way of a conclusion, are two recipes for Smoking Bishop, a favourite of Dickens.  

Make several incisions in the rind of a lemon, stick cloves in the incisions, and roast the lemon by a slow fire. Put small but equal quantities of cinnamon, cloves, mace, and all-spice, and a race of ginger, into a saucepan, with half a pint of water; let it boil until it is reduced one half. Boil one bottle of port wine; burn a portion of the spirit out of it, by applying a lighted paper to the saucepan. Put the roasted lemons and spice into the wine; stir it up well, and let it stand near the fire ten minutes. Rub a few knobs of sugar on the rind of a lemon, put the sugar into a bowl or jug, with the juice of half a lemon, (not roasted,) pour the wine upon it, grate some nutmeg into it, sweeten it to your taste, and serve it up with the lemon and spice floating in it.

Oranges, although not used in Bishop at Oxford, are, as will appear by the following lines, written by Swift, sometimes introduced into that beverage. ‘Fine oranges Well roasted, with sugar and wine in a cup, They’ll make a sweet Bishop when gentlefolks sup’.

From Oxford Night Caps: A Collection of Recipes for Making Various Beverages in the University (1827), by Richard Cook.

And a modern version from Punchdrink:

Ingredients: 750 ml ruby port; 750 ml red wine; 1 cup water; ½ cup brown sugar; ¼ teaspoon ginger, freshly grated; ¼ teaspoon allspice, ground; ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated; 4 oranges; 20 cloves, whole. Garnish: clove-studded orange slice.

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Wash and dry oranges. Pierce and stud each orange with five cloves.

3. Place oranges in a baking dish and roast until lightly browned all over, 60-90 minutes.

4. Add port, wine, water, sugar and spices to a saucepan, and simmer over low heat.

5. Slice oranges in half and squeeze juice into the wine and port mixture.

6. Serve in a punch bowl, and ladle into individual glasses.

Bibliography

Charles Dickens: Pickwick Papers; Nicholas Nickelby; Our Mutual Friend; Oliver Twist; Great Expectations; A Christmas Carol.

Dinner with Dickens: Recipes inspired by the life and work of Charles Dickens, by Pen Vogler (CICO, 2017).


[1] Snapdragon was a popular parlour game often played on Christmas Eve. Raisins were dropped into a bowl of heated brandy which was then set alight. The point of the game was to pick out the raisins, and the winner was whoever amassed the most.

2 thoughts on “Dickens and Wittles

  1. In the matter of Dickens and vittles, Charles Dickens, in the final year of his life, lost his Christmas turkey thanks to a fire on the Great Western Railway (GWR). In the Christmas week of 1869, a horse box which was being used to carry parcels on a train from Hereford to London caught fire near Hanwell. Middlesex. The contents of the horse box, including Dickens’ turkey were destroyed. The GWR Paddington Parcels Office contacted the turkey-less Dickens to explain and received the reply letter from him in February 1870. Dickens wrote: Sir, in reply to your letter I beg to say that I have no doubt my Christmas fare was destroyed by an unavoidable accident, and that I bore the loss with unbroken good humour towards the Great Western Railway Company.
    Faithfully Yours,
    Charles Dickens
    Dickens was to die four months later in June 1870 exactly five years after surviving the Staplehurst rail crash.

    • Sue, who wrote the blog about Dickens, says: That’s an interesting story- I hadn’t heard of that incident before. The response of Dickens seems quite in character! He didn’t have much luck with trains. He and his lover Nellie Ternan were lucky to escape the Staplehurst crash in 1865. The train from Folkestone to London fell into the River Beult but they escaped – they were in a first class carriage at the front of the train. To spare his reputation, she and her mother were bundled from the scene while he comforted other passengers with his brandy flask, and his top hat filled with water!

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