A post in which I compare reading Dickens to eating chocolate cake. And other stuff.
On with the show
Welcome to this, my second, ‘Food in Books’ post. As you can tell, I still haven’t come up with a better title. Maybe this title will be the one that sticks. I’m managing to put the harrowing image of second-hand curry between library book pages out of my mind. Mostly.
Today’s book is a ‘Penguin Little Black Classics’ book of two short stories by Charles Dickens: ‘The Great Winglebury Duel’ and ‘The Steam Excursion’. The stories were originally published by Dickens in newspapers in the 1800s, but in 1836 they were gathered together into a volume called ‘Sketches by Boz’, alongside 54 other sketches of London life.
They are essentially the flash fiction of the 19th Century. A few brief dramatic scenes.
I’m not normally a Dickens fan, but this tiny volume made it into my handbag to keep me company on my Easter travels without weighing me down.
If I was being sensible, for the sake of my bad back, I should probably make the switch to the spare Kindle that lives in our house, but paper and ink have my heart. And you can’t buy a second-hand Kindle book. I love an inexpensive pre-loved book, and the joy of lending my books on.
So onto the book…
The Great Winglebury Duel
Very much like ‘The Outrun’ from last time, there is very little food in either ‘The Great Winglebury Duel’ and ‘The Steam Excursion.’ I’m sure I’ll get to a book that is simply groaning with food at some point, but it’s going to be very much a stumble-upon moment.
The first of the two stories is about a moment of mistaken identity. Mr Alexander Trott is taken for Lord Peter, gentleman lover-of-the-high-life, eloping with his older fiancé in disguise. Things inevitably get more and more tangled, as letters get delivered anonymously, and people take him for a madman.
The second story is about Mr Percy Noakes, a favourite in his circle of Society. He congratulates himself on the idea of pulling together a committee to plan a steam excursion; a delightful day out, which begins with social snubs and ends in a storm.
I’ll be honest, the only food I remembered at the close of the book was the picnic feast that Percy Noake’s seasick guests don’t eat on the storm-shaken steamer:
“There was a large, substantial cold boiled leg of mutton at the bottom of the table, shaking like blanc-mange; a hearty sirloin of beef looked as if it had been suddenly seized with the palsy; and some tongues, which were placed on dishes rather too large for them, were going through the most surprising evolutions, darting from side to side, and from end to end, like a fly in an inverted wine-glass. Then the sweets shook and trembled till it was quite impossible to help them, and people gave up the attempt in despair; and the pigeon-pies looked as if the birds, whose legs were stuck outside, were trying to get them in.”
I love just how unappetising Dickens manages to make the feast sound, and how he makes it positively come alive. The food really are characters in their own right, grotesquely writhing on their platters.
My joy in reading this passage, and most of the rest of these compact little stories, made me realise something. Dickens is like a rich chocolate cake!
I really enjoy Dickens across a story 25 small pages long. I relish the heavy sentences laden in grotesque detail, and the comically over-developed characters, over a few thousand words. But making me read hundreds of pages of ‘Great Expectations’ or ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ is like force-feeding me the sixth slice of the cake.
Don’t do it!
But that feeling makes complete sense. Now that I actually think about it.
Dickens’ stories were serialised, weren’t they? His stories were designed to be enjoyed one bite at a time; at a few thousand words a week. Which makes me wonder, is there is an online service which emails you his books a chapter a week? If it’s not already out there, someone should take the idea and run with it!
So, would I sign up?
Ha! No, probably not. I suspect I’d still find his long and winding plots pretty tedious, if I’m honest. They’re just not for me. But I do think I’ll seek out some more of the little unintimdating volumes of his sketches. They will make great travel companions and will leave me feeling satisfied, like one slice of excellent cake.
Do you like Dickens? What kind of food is he for you?