You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2012.

thFor a convivial drink to celebrate the New Year why not concoct a bowl of Mr. Micawber’s punch. He makes it not once, but twice, in David Copperfield, initially, when David hosts his first dinner party. The Micawbers–“Mr. Micawber with more shirt-collar than usual, and a new ribbon to his eye-glass”–are among his guests.

I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

And when it’s ready:

“Punch, my dear Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, tasting it, “like time and tide, waits for no man. Ah! it is at the present moment in high flavour. My love, will you give me your opinion?” Mrs. Micawber pronounced it excellent. (From David Copperfield, Chapter 27)

The second occasion is on the eve of the Micawber family’s departure for Australia, when Mr. Micawber consents to compose “a moderate portion of that Beverage which is peculiarly associated, in our minds, with the Roast Beef of Old England. I allude to–in short, Punch.”

The Micawbers are already prepared for life at sea and in the Outback.

Mr. Micawber immediately descended to the bar . . . and in due time returned with a steaming jug. I could not but observe that he had been peeling the lemons with his own clasp-knife, which, as became the knife of a practical settler, was about a foot long; and which he wiped, not wholly without ostentation, on the sleeve of his coat. Mrs. Micawber and the two elder members of the family I now found to be provided with similar formidable instruments, while every child had its own wooden spoon attached to its body by a strong line. In a similar anticipation of life afloat, and in the Bush, Mr. Micawber, instead of helping Mrs. Micawber and his eldest son and daughter to punch, in wine-glasses, which he might easily have done, for there was a shelf-full in the room, served it out to them in a series of villainous little tin pots; and I never saw him enjoy anything so much as drinking out of his own particular pint pot, and putting it in his pocket at the close of the evening. (From David Copperfield, Chapter 57)

Mr. Micawber, so magnificently resilient and rhetorical, is based on Dickens’s father, John, also a master of the punch bowl. By the 1840s, the making of punch was fast becoming an outdated, old-fashioned custom but one his son loved. According to this Esquire article by David Wondrich, “When he was among friends, it was his custom to brew up a bowl of punch, complete with a running disquisition on the techniques he was using and the ingredients he was deploying.”

esq-holiday-punch-drink-1212-lgHere’s Charles’s  own recipe for making three pints of punch:

Peel into a very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double hand-full of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy–if it not be a large claret-glass, say two.

Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. [L]et it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to Time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame.

Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again. At this crisis (having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon) you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe it will be a little sweeter presently.

Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours, take half the lemon peel out, or it will acquire a bitter taste.

The same punch allowed to cool by degrees, and then iced, is delicious. It requires less sugar when made for this purpose. If you wish to produce it bright, strain it into bottles through silk. These proportions and directions will, of course, apply to any quantity. (From a letter to “Mrs. F.”–Amelia Austin Filloneau–January 18, 1847)

At the end of A Christmas Carol Dickens mentions another punch, made with red wine and oranges, called smoking bishop in reference to its deep red color, when he has Scrooge tell Bob Cratchit, “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!”

Although I haven’t tried either punch, I’ve seen  smoking bishop  on the menu  at Cavanaugh’s Dark Horse, where the Dickens Fellowship’s Philadelphia branch meets. If it’s still there at our next meeting, I’ll give it a try–after my talk.

Dickens Fellowship Meeting

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dutch-treat lunch, noon

Meeting, 1:15

Talk: Joan Kane Nichols, Dickens and Dogs

Guests welcome.

Cavanaugh’s Headhouse Square (formerly The Dark Horse)

Pickwick Room

421 South 2nd Street



1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

In November 1838, 23-year-old Catherine Dickens, the happily married mother of two—a one-year-old son, Charley, and an eight-month-old daughter, Mary—received a letter from Charles, away on a trip. It ended with these words: “God bless you my darling—I long to be back with you again, and to see the sweet Babs—Your faithful and most affectionate Husband.”

1858 photo

1858 photo

In June 1858, twenty years later Charles wrote to his best friend, John Forster, bemoaning his present marital unhappiness and tracing its source to that same time:

Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it. It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that I make her so too . . . we are strangely ill-assorted for the bond there is between us. . . . What is now befalling me I have seen steadily coming, ever since the days you remember when Mary was born; and I know too well that you cannot, and no one can, help me.

What went wrong? How did “my darling” turn into “poor Catherine”? More to the point, when did the marriage begin to go wrong for Dickens—almost from the beginning as he suggests, or only in more recent years?

 Charlie Takes a Wife

In 1834 George Hogarth, editor of London’s Evening Chronicle, hired Charles Dickens to write some articles for him. Growing fond of the talented and ambitious young man, Hogarth invited him to meet his family at his home south of the Fulham Road, a somewhat rural neighborhood sandwiched between Kensington Gardens and the Thames. Charles was impressed with the Hogarths, who four years earlier had arrived in England from Edinburgh, where Mr. Hogarth had been a friend of Charles’s idol, the famous author Walter Scott. They were a cultured and contented family, definitely a cut above his own.

Best of all, he liked 19-year-old Catherine, the oldest of the Hogarth’s nine children. Cheerful, bright, and happy, with a good sense of humor (though rumored to have a penchant for bad puns), warm-hearted and compliant, Catherine was everything Charles could want in a woman. Pretty too, even sexy in a quiet way, with her heavy-lidded blue eyes, what are often called “bedroom eyes,” uptilted nose, red lips, and shapely figure.

Unlike Charles’s former love, Maria Beadnell, Catherine was intelligent, an avid reader and a serious musician, a companion with whom he could discuss his work. And she was versed in the practical arts of housekeeping and child care. Though richly endowed with culture and children, the Hogarths, had few servants. Along with her 15-year-old sister, Mary, her best friend and closest companion, Catherine attended to domestic chores, including caring for her youngest siblings, a pair of one-year-old twins.

1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

But she also enjoyed a normal share of excursions, gossip, sleepovers, flirting, and parties, such as the one Charles invited her to for his 23rd birthday. She wrote, “Mr. Dickens improves very much upon acquaintance he is very gentlemanly and pleasant.”

He became a constant visitor to her home, played with the younger children, made himself agreeable. Once, dressed as a sailor, “he jumped in at the window, danced a hornpipe, whistling the tune, jumped out again.” Little more than six months after they met, he proposed. Catherine accepted. How could she resist this handsome, clever, ambitious, amusing young man?  He called her, “darling Tatie,” “darling Pig,” “dearest Mouse.” He sent her a thousand kisses in his letters. He demanded she come make breakfast for him, so he could see her smiling face as soon as he woke up.

He was always “Charles in Charge.” Less than three weeks into their engagement, Catherine, miffed for some reason, treated him to a dose of cool reserve. Furious, he  returned home and dashed off a letter. Her “sudden and uncalled for coldness” had “surprised and deeply hurt” him. “If a hasty temper produce this strange behavior, acknowledge it. If a feeling of you know not what—a capricious restlessness of you can’t tell what, and a desire to teaze, you don’t know why—give rise to it—overcome it.” If she’s grown tired of him, she’s to say so at once. “I shall not forget you lightly, but you will need no second warning.” If she feels anger when she reads this letter “or to use a word more current with your sex—‘spirit’,” she’s to let it go.

Heeding his implied threat, she was careful to avoid showing ‘spirit’ again. She did complain of his frequent absences, however, saying he was more interested in his writing than in her. Everything he did, he insisted, using a well-worn excuse, he did for her.

Whether for Catherine or to gratify his own ambition, Charles did work hard. A respected journalist, he had a growing reputation as an author of stories and sketches. A publisher suggested he gather his sketches into a book. Thrilled, he wrote more sketches to fill up the volume. On February 7, 1836, his 24th birthday, Sketches by Boz, illustrations by George Cruikshank, was published to great success.

Three days later, publishers Chapman and Hall told him a well-known artist, Robert Seymour, had an idea for a series of engraved illustrations showing the comic hunting and fishing mishaps of a club of sporting gentleman. Would Dickens write short bits of text to accompany the illustrations? Charles, who had a good share of chutzpah, agreed on two conditions: first, instead of him writing text to accompany Seymour’s drawings, Seymour would illustrate text that Dickens would write; second, since Dickens knew nothing about sports (the topic was old hat anyway), he’d write about a wide range of scenes and people. Chapman and Hall agreed. Seymour, though irked that his plan had been twisted out of shape by this hack upstart, had to agree too.

Contracts were signed, deadlines decided. Now all Charles had to do was write the book—after first coming up with characters and a plot. “I thought of Mr. Pickwick,” he said. Two days later The Pickwick Papers was underway. The first number came out on March 31, 1836. Two days later, on April 2, he and Catherine were married

<to be continued>