The eccentric, angelic, villainous and beguiling characters populating the teeming novels of Charles Dickens — whose birthday is today — are constantly inviting one another to tea. Not all of them, however, drink tea. Some prefer coffee.
A harmless preference, you might say.
Not so fast, says British food historian Pen Vogler, who has a whimsical but rather wonderful theory to offer about the Victorian author's various characters' moral fiber based on who drinks what beverage. According to her, the good guys prefer tea while the dodgier ones plot and scheme over coffee.
In Dinner with Dickens, her elegantly produced new book, Vogler combines her twin passions for English food and Charles Dickens to recreate 60 Victorian dishes that feature either in his novels or his life. The recipes — updated for the modern cook — cover everything from the pork pie Pip stole for the convict Magwitch in Great Expectations to the roast goose and plum pudding from A Christmas Carol to the fragrant bowl of punch that helped dissolve Mr. Micawber's insolvency blues in David Copperfield.
The recipes are accompanied by literary essays on how Dickens — who experienced hunger and poverty when he was sent to work in a shoe-blacking factory at the age of 12 — used food not just for sensory and dramatic effect, but to provide crucial insights into individual character and expose social hypocrisy. One scathing example of the latter can be found in Bleak House, where Jo, the wretched orphan boy who sweeps London's streets, munches on a "dirty bit of bread" while sitting on the doorstep of the grandiosely named Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.
While investigating this fascinating Dickensian nexus between food and morality, Vogler came up with her tea-good-coffee-bad theory.
"This is an observation rather than a rule," she laughs, "and there are lots of counter examples. And, as with anything in Dickens, it is the circumstance rather than the comestible that is most telling. Tea is often (though not always) part of a comfortable and feminine ritual; coffee-drinking was seen as more vigorous and powerful, thanks perhaps to its caffeine boost, but also to its association with the [19th-century] coffee houses where men gathered to talk politics."
Perhaps the most notorious coffee-drinker Dickens created is the fraudulent "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs. Jellyby from Bleak House. Utterly immune to the plight of her own children (who are constantly falling down the stairs) or to the travails of sweepers like Jo, she spends all her time drinking strong coffee and supposedly promoting the welfare of Africans in a fictitious realm called Borrioboola-Gha. "She neglects her feminine role as mother and wife, whilst she writes coffee-fueled letters long into the night, to promote her coffee-growing charity," says Vogler. "It is funny, but, as with all Dickens' bad mothers, it has a chilling ring of his own unhappy experience. He could never forgive his mother for wanting him to continue to work at the blacking factory, rather than go to school, even after his father was released from debtors' prison."
Coffee also brings to mind the cloying and sinister passage from David Copperfield featuring the smarmy Uriah Heep. "It's a brilliantly excruciating scene," says Vogler. "David invites Uriah Heep for coffee, intending a rather manly encounter, which Uriah Heep infuriatingly and skillfully subverts at every turn. His boastful glee that David is serving him turns David's hospitable gesture into something servile and emasculating. Heep keeps nursing his coffee cup in his fingers, which repels David, and then asks 'ever so umbly' for further servitude with another cup of coffee."
In A Tale of Two Cities, set amidst the bloodletting of the French Revolution, Vogler points to the "chilling scene in which the Marquis genteelly sips coffee whilst he is having a conversation, toxic with veiled threats, with his nephew." With his "face of a transparent paleness" and "very slightly pinched" nostrils, the Marquis is a study in sadistic cruelty.
Lower down in the caffeinated rogues' gallery is the shameless sponge and layabout Harold Skimpole, also from Bleak House, who is perfectly content with the best things in life as long as someone else is paying for them. As he airily declares, "Give me my peach, my cup of coffee, and my claret; I am content."
As for the warmhearted and virtuous tea drinkers, what more affecting example than the scene from The Old Curiosity Shop, where the starved and ill-treated little maidservant called the Marchioness — one of Dickens' most sentimental portraits — nurses the good-natured Dick Swiveller back from the brink. "She kisses his hands and administers tea and toast to him for breakfast; a mirror of the scene in which Dick first takes pity on the girl and buys her beef and beer," says Vogler. "They are an odd couple, who somehow offer one another nourishment and love which draws on maternal, paternal and romantic love but doesn't fit into any category."
Equally beloved is Pip's rustic blacksmith uncle, Joe Gargery, from Great Expectations. "As truly humble and good as Uriah Heep is not, Joe is a natural tea-drinker," says Vogler. "Great Expectations is the Dickens' novel most concerned with social class and its non-alignment with natural goodness; and the two come together uncomfortably in a scene when Joe is visiting the upwardly mobile Pip in London, who is — disgracefully — somewhat ashamed of Joe. When Pip's friend, Herbert, asks him whether he will take tea or coffee, he's too embarrassed to choose but gives himself away when Herbert chooses the more sophisticated coffee for him:
"Since you are so kind as make chice of coffee, I will not run contrairy to your own opinions. But don't you never find it a little 'eating?
'Say tea then,' said Herbert, pouring it out."
Vogler cautions that her observation is hardly a cast-iron one. "You will surely find many counter-examples! I'm not pretending tea is a universal signal of virtue," she says. "For instance, in The Old Curiosity Shop, the villainous dwarf Quilp deliberately swigs his tea boiling hot to terrify his wife and mother-in-law." Even more revolting is his habit of eating hard-boiled eggs with their shells on — a detail that evokes the depths of his hideosity like no other.
On balance, most of Dickens' characters drink tea. "It is a regular and welcome punctuation for their daily lives, which suggests that it was in his, too," says Vogler. "After tea taxation was slashed in 1784, tea consumption soared and it rapidly became a prop for all classes. For Dickens' working-class characters, tea is a 'warm and greasy' and comfortable meal, whereas coffee had suggestions of refinement and cruelty."
Or maybe the word coffee triggered a discomfiting memory for Dickens from that miserable year at the blacking factory. He described to his friend and first biographer, John Forster, how, while at a local coffee shop to have "half a pint of coffee, and a slice of bread-and-butter," he experienced something that shook him deeply:
In the door there was an oval glass plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EEFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal reverie,) a shock goes through my blood.
The shock of reading COFFEE-ROOM backwards left the already vulnerable boy feeling even more lonely, making the otherwise familiar surroundings of the London street seem strange and nonsensical. Perhaps Dicken's subconscious hostility to coffee — if indeed he had one — was rooted in the shudder evoked by that one weird and meaningless word, MOOR-EEFFOC. A word almost as mysterious as "covfefe."
Nina Martyris is a journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.