It was February 1824, and Charles Dickens was hungry. With his father, John Dickens, jailed in the Marshalsea Prison over a debt of 40 pounds, 12-year-old Charles begrudgingly quit school to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory in London. His family, who was forced to move into the prison with their father, desperately needed the money; there were 10 starving mouths to feed. So for 10 hours a day and six shillings per week, in a room overrun by gray rats and intoxicating fumes, Dickens pasted labels on tiny pots of shoe polish. And he daydreamed about all the food a poor English working boy couldn’t possibly afford.
Later, Dickens would call upon this daily drudgery to inspire a recurring character that pervaded his novels: the helpless, young boy abandoned in a cruel world. And as his stomach growled for hot-baked apples and thickly buttered bread, the factory is where Dickens’ hunger was probably born.
If you’re searching for a tasty glimpse into Victorian victuals, the novels of Dickens will satisfy your craving. He generously sprinkled vivid images of food into his books, often describing the most minute details of a character’s meal. In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens alludes to 35 breakfasts, 32 dinners and 10 luncheons, and includes 249 separate references to drink (albeit, not all of it alcoholic). That’s quite a lot of conversation about food — but then, Dickens always had a great deal to say on any subject.
Call him the first literary “foodie,” or maybe a man who found “magic in a pint bottle” and developed a dogged “passion for gravy.” Either way, modern readers can gain great insight into how 19th-century Londoners ate and drank — and about the author himself, who was born Feb. 7, 1812 — by curling up with a dog-eared copy of Great Expectations or Little Dorrit.
Dickens was a culinary progressive, although he probably didn’t realize it in his lifetime. The earliest known depiction of French fries (British “chips”) in literature comes from his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Although the distinctly British meal of “fish and chips” would not be served commercially until 1863, Dickens describes our modern fast-food spuds in savory detail: “husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.”
Plagued by his own memories of hunger, Dickens characters are often heavily — and regularly — fixated on food. There is 9-year-old Oliver Twist, sent to the workhouse and forced to exist on “three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays.” In Great Expectations, Pip amusingly details the way his sister — a fuming, angry woman right down to her cooking maneuvers — menacingly cuts and butters the bread:
First, with her left hand she jammed the loaf hard and fast against her bib — where it sometimes got a pin into it, and sometimes a needle, which we afterwards got into our mouths. Then she took some butter (not too much) on a knife and spread it on the loaf, in an apothecary kind of way… using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity, and trimming and moulding the butter off round the crust.
In contrast to those characters in Dickens novels who are always in want of food, there are others who are prone to comical overconsumption. It’s easy to imagine that Dickens connected meal-time indulgence with affluence. It’s also apparent that he had an emphatic obsession with gravy. The author spoke of humans’ passion for gravy in a speech at a charity dinner in London in 1860. Mrs. Cratchit makes it for her family in A Christmas Carol; Joe tries to comfort Pip in Great Expectations by steadily spooning out gravy until it forms a puddle of brown liquid on the boy’s plate. In Dickens’ fictional, often cruel world, gravy is tantamount to an expression of love.
The characters of Dickens, an opponent of the Temperance Movement, also frequently find pleasure in a good, stiff drink — or four. In one of many such scenes in The Pickwick Papers, Mr. Pickwick finds the “greatest delight” in downing a “constant succession” of glasses of punch. Predictably, 19th-century drunken high jinks ensue.
“Yielding by degrees to the influence of the exciting liquid, rendered more so by the heat, Mr. Pickwick expressed a strong desire to recollect a song which he had heard in his infancy, and the attempt proving abortive, sought to stimulate his memory with more glasses of punch, which appeared to have quite a contrary effect; for, from forgetting the words of the song, he began to forget how to articulate any words at all; and finally, after rising to his legs to address the company in an eloquent speech, he fell into the barrow, and fast asleep, simultaneously.”
Indeed, Dickens has a rather robust literary love affair with “punch” in all varieties, temperatures and flavors. His writings mention at least 10 different variations of punch; most of them spiked and guaranteed to enliven any festivity. In at least five of his novels, including David Copperfield, Bleak House and A Christmas Carol, the characters imbibe a hot cup of Port Negus punch. It’s rumored that Dickens was particularly fond of Port Negus, a mulled wine drink that can be found in works by many other Victorian novelists, including Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray.
In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens ironically pens: “Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature.” This seems to be a battle that the author waged within himself.
But his characters often prove that there is no misfortune that a fine bit of beef, pudding or fried potato can’t temporarily cure. If there is one lesson to take away from Dickens’ writing, it’s to celebrate the simple joy in a hard-earned meal.
Everything else is just gravy.
If you think you might like Port Negus as much as Charles Dickens did, here is a recipe for you to try.