Enjoy Thanksgiving with our menu of literary recipes:
Christmas Bonus: George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding
October 22d.—At a dinner-party at Mr. Holland’s last evening, a gentleman, in instance of Charles Dickens’s unweariability, said that during some theatrical performances in Liverpool he acted in play and farce, spent the rest of the night making speeches, feasting, and drinking at table, and ended at seven o’clock in the morning by jumping leap-frog over the backs of the whole company.
In Moore’s diary he mentions a beautiful Guernsey lily having been given to his wife, and says that the flower was originally from Guernsey. A ship from there had been wrecked on the coast of Japan, having many of the lilies on board, and the next year the flowers appeared,—springing up, I suppose, on the wave-beaten strand.
Wishing to send a letter to a dead man, who may be supposed to have gone to Tophet,—throw it into the fire.
Sir Arthur Aston had his brains beaten out with his own wooden leg, at the storming of Tredagh in Ireland by Cromwell.
In the county of Cheshire, many centuries ago, there lived a half-idiot, named Nixon, who had the gift of prophecy, and made many predictions about places, families, and important public events, since fulfilled. He seems to have fallen into fits of insensibility previous to uttering his prophecies.
The family of Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering), of Bromborough, had an ass’s head for a crest.
“Richard Dawson, being sick of the plague, and perceiving he must die, rose out of his bed and made his grave, and caused his nephew to cast straw into the grave, which was not far from the house, and went and laid him down in the said grave, and caused clothes to be laid upon him, and so departed out of this world. This he did because he was a strong man, and heavier than his said nephew and a serving-wench were able to bury. He died about the 24th of August. Thus was I credibly told he did, 1625.” This was in the township of Malpas, recorded in the parish register.
At Bickley Hall, taken down a few years ago, used to be shown the room where the body of the Earl of Leicester was laid for a whole twelvemonth,—1659 to 1660,—he having been kept unburied all that time, owing to a dispute which of his heirs should pay his funeral expenses.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry of October 22nd, 1853; collected in Passages from the English Note-Books.
“The Philosophy of Composition” by Edgar Allan Poe
Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of Barnaby Rudge, says—”By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his Caleb Williams backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’s idea—but the author of Caleb Williams was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—-designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact or action may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects or impressions of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel first, and secondly, a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterwards looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of events or tone as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but perhaps the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations,—in a word, at the wheels and pinions, the tackle for scene-shifting, the step-ladders and demon-traps, the cock’s feathers, the red paint, and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
Enjoy Thanksgiving with our menu of literary recipes:
Christmas Bonus: George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding
At Victorian Web, Philip V. Allingham shares a recipe for Charles Dickens’s punch:
“Charles Dickens’s Own Punch,” according to Brenda Marshall in The Charles Dickens Cookbook (1981), was that with which Mr. Micawber regales the eponymous youth in Chapter XXVIII of David Copperfield , the literary progeny with whom Dickens most closely identified himself. In an 1847 letter Dickens gave the following recipe for this second punch:
Peel into a very 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 handful of lump sugar (good measure [although Dickens had rather small hands]), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass of good old brandy‹if it be not 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. Let it burn 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 moment of crisis, the inimitable Boz suggests skimming off the lemon pips and doing some judicious sampling before one places the jug (sealed with leather on top) in a hot oven for ten minutes. However, the text’s editor proposes stove-top heating instead — “it could possibly alight in a modern oven.”
(From Kafka’s Diaries).
Caroline “Caddy” Jellyby
General Cyrus Choke
Italo Calvino on Charles Dickens’s last novel Our Mutual Friend. Essay from Why Read the Classics?:
The Thames at nightfall, dark and muddy, with the tide rising up the piers of the bridges: against this backdrop, which this year’s news stories have brought to our attention in the most lugubrious light, a boat approaches, almost touching the floating logs, barges and rubbish. At its prow stands a man staring with vulture-like eyes at the current as though looking for something; at the oars, half-hidden by the hood of her cheap cloak, is a girl with an angelic face. What are they looking for? We soon learn that the man recovers the corpses of suicides or murder victims who have been flung into the river: the waters of the Thames seem to contain every day a rich catch for this particular fisherman. As soon as he sees a corpse floating on the water’s surface, the man removes the gold coins from his pockets, and then drags him with a rope to a riverside police station, where he will receive a reward. The angelic girl, the daughter of the boatman, tries not to look at this macabre booty: she is terrified, but continues to row.
The openings of Dickens’ novels are often memorable, but none is better than the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend, the second last novel he wrote, and the last one he completed. Carried along on the corpse-fisher’s boat, we seem to enter the dark side of the world.
In the second chapter everything changes. We are now surrounded by characters out of a comedy of manners, attending a dinner-party at the house of parvenus where everyone pretends to be old friends but in fact they barely know each other. However, before the chapter ends the guests’ conversation suddenly turns to the mystery of a man who drowned just as he was about to inherit a vast fortune, and this takes us back to the suspense of the opening chapter.
From The Paris Review interview, William Gibson on on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House—
The Victorians invented science fiction.
I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing technoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.
But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”
Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were relatively few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.
In the Company of Strangers — We Review Barry McCrea’s New Book About Queer Family Ties in Dickens, Joyce, and Proust
Barry McCrea’s In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust is one of the more engaging works of literary criticism I’ve seen in some time. And while I’m interested in McCrea’s subjects (the weird lines between the Victorian era and modernism, family and marriage plots, Dickens and Joyce, etc.), it’s the clarity of his writing that I find most impressive. Clear, frank writing is too rare in current literary criticism. Here’s McCrea describing his project—
This book argues that the formal innovations of the high-modernist novel are inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained. Genealogy was thematically and structurally central to the English nineteenth-century novel. In the Company of Strangers shows how the formal strategies employed by Joyce and Proust grow out of an attempt to build a fully coherent narrative system that is not rooted in the genealogical family. Modernism’s rejection of the familiar and cultivation of the strange, in other words, are inseparable from its abandonment of the family and embrace of the bond with the stranger as an alternative to it.
[In the Company of Strangers] offers a reassessment of the relationship between the modernists and their Victorian predecessors, suggesting that the key precursor to this queer model of narrative can be located, paradoxically, in the genealogical obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel. Far from representing a clean break with the Victorian family novel, the radical narrative formalism of high modernism exploits the potential of an alternative queer plot that was already present as a formal building block in the nineteenth-century novel.
McCrea’s queer theory lens is keenly attuned to the homoerotic content present in the novels he examines, but his critical gaze is ultimately more interested in how “queer time” functions as an organizing principle throughout the structure of these narratives. McCrea argues that this queer model of time is a central and defining characteristic of literary modernism. The agent (or one agent) of queer time is “the stranger,” the character who figuratively threatens (and paradoxically defines) the family. McCrea points out that the typical Victorian marriage plot resolves the problem of the stranger by incorporating him or her into the family as a point of narrative resolution. In contrast, in “the queer modernist narrative strategies of Ulysses and the Recherche, the stranger rivals and ultimately usurps the family plot.”
McCrea sifts through family plots (and the strangers who would challenge or queer them) in Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Ulysses (“a queer family epic”), and Proust’s big book. In the Company of Strangers constantly scrutinizes the ways that family organizes narrative (and narrative organizes family). The book also analyzes what “urban literature” might mean, examining what it means to live in proximity to one’s fellows, and the ways in which urban living necessitate ad hoc families.
In the Company of Strangers does a lovely job of tracing the strange currents that run from Victorian lit to modernism and beyond—currents that extend from our conceptions of family itself, and indeed, our conceptions of life and an end to life. McCrea’s writing is precise, supported by a close textual readings, and if I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, he achieved what every critic ought to aim for: he made me want to read the books he was writing about again.
In the Company of Strangers is new from Columbia University Press.