The Dickens Museum in London is exploring the great author’s culinary world through a fascinating collection of archives, objects and a groaning Victorian dining table
Charles Dickens and his family lived, entertained countless friends and hosted dinner parties for some of the most influential and interesting members of Victorian society at his London home on Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, which is now the Charles Dickens Museum.
It was here that Dickens created Oliver Twist, a novel which revolves around hunger and the need for food, exemplifying, as much as any of his tales, the significance of food in Dickens’s stories.
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But not only did Charles Dickens create the Dickensian world via his books, he also lived it, as evidenced by this illuminating display of the dinners he enjoyed.
Dickens culinary adventures rivalled and often surpassed the many feasts to be found in his books, and whether it’s A Christmas Carol, Martin Chuzzlewit or a real-world evening soiree at Doughty Street, all of the elements of the eminent Victorian’s deep relationship with fine fare and epic menus is explored in this exhibition.
Food Glorious Food: Dinner with Dickens also reveals how his dinner parties – full of activity, wit, comedy and people and their peculiarities – were essential food for his imagination.
The exhibition showcases some of the most glorious culinary scenes of the novels, such as the convivial lobster salad picnic, comforting roast fowl, bacon and ale that revives Mr Tupman, when he fancies himself broken-hearted in Pickwick Papers or the vast array of festive foods laid at the foot of the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol.
Yet the plight of one of of his most famous literary creations, the orphan Oliver Twist, reflects the hardship of Dickens’s own childhood and the poverty and hunger that saw him gaze longingly into grocery shop windows as a child and which remained a secret until after his death.
“Food is everywhere in Dickens’s stories and almost always significant,” says exhibition co-curator Pen Vogler, who is the author of Dinner with Dickens: Recipes inspired by the life and work of Charles Dickens.
“Consider the importance of Pip’s stolen pie in Great Expectations or the ‘prize Turkey’ that Scrooge gives to the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol. Food – and the lack of it – is so central to Dickens’s work that it comes as a real surprise that the hunger of his childhood years was not revealed until his biography was published shortly after his death.”
Little wonder then that Dickens enjoyed a good slap up, and the exhibition draws on letters and first-hand accounts by Dickens’ dinner guests to build a vivid picture of the experience of enjoying a fine feast with Dickens.
Among the exhibits is a previously-unseen letter from 1849, written by novelist Elizabeth Gaskell giving a detailed description of a dinner at Dickens’s home:
“…I kept trying to learn people’s faces off by heart, that I might remember them; but it was rather confusing there were so very many,” wrote the clearly star struck Victorian author. “There were some nice little Dickens’ children in the room, – who were so polite, and well-trained. We came away at last feeling we had seen so many people and things that day that we were quite confused; only that we should be glad to remember we had done it.”
Other charming treasures of Dickensiana include the large wooden lemon squeezer that was used to prepare the author’s favourite punch recipes and numerous hand-written dinner invitations from Dickens to his friends.
A menu card written out by Georgina Hogarth, Charles Dickens’ sister in law, reveals the typical bill of fare at chez Dickens. An entrée of clear or Palestine soup is followed by cod in oyster sauce or sole with fine herbs. Next up is chicken with spinach, sweetbreads with peas, truffles and beef gravy. Further courses offer saddle of mutton, pheasants and scalloped oysters finished off with ginger pudding, mince pies, jelly, fondue and a final but restorative coup de grace of apricot ice cream and orange water ice. It was, as Mr Pickwick might have said, “a glorious supper”.
To help us visualise this typically Dickensian, gout-inducing menu, the museum has reconstructed what it describes as a ‘groaning Victorian dining table’, set for dessert and featuring items used by Dickens and his family when hosting social gatherings at home.
As one might expect, the dining accoutrements that attended these feasts are similarly impressive – many of them bearing the Dickens cipher of a lion holding a Maltese cross.
There’s a silver-plated samovar owned by Dickens and used at his home at Gad’s Hill Place; Dickens’s heavy silver fish-knife, engraved with a fish design and the monogram ‘CD’ and a set of 6 silver punch ladles presented to Dickens to celebrate the completion of Pickwick Papers, each featuring a character from the novel – and Dickens’s wooden bread board.
Amidst this display of cooking and dining paraphernalia is the claret decanter Dickens gave to his friend, the biographer and literary critic John Forster. A fine piece of cut glass, it is surmounted by an engraved decorative spout and handle of vine leaves and grapes – the perfect vessel for passing the port up and down the Victorian dinner table.
But then Dickens is well known for his love of the tipple. His own hand-written 1865 inventory of the contents of his wine cellar at Gad’s Hill Place reveals how, among the items to be found in Dickens’ cellar of 1865, were ‘one 50 gallon cask ale’, ‘one 18 gallon cask gin’, ‘one 9 gallon cask brandy’ and ‘one 9 gallon cask rum’.
The cellar also included dozens of bottles of champagne, Chablis, Sauterne, Metternich hock, claret, L’eau d’or and Kirsch.
Dinner with Dickens was indeed a convivial thing.
Food Glorious Food: Dinner with Dickens is at the Charles Dickens Museum from 28th November 2018 until 22nd April 2019.
Charles Dickens Museum
London, Greater London
Number 48 Doughty Street is the only remaining London home of eminent Victorian author Charles Dickens. Dickens described the terraced Georgian dwelling as 'my house in town' and resided here from 1837 until 1839 with his wife and young family. Two of his daughters were born here, his sister-in-law Mary…