Making a night of it - with Charles Dickens

The theme of drink runs through much of Dickens’ work and reveals something of his own contradictory attitude towards alcohol. Dickens biographer and Wine Society member Claire Tomalin shares her thoughts on what may have shaped his views

Mr Fezzwigs Ball Charles Dickens was an enthusiastic drinker of wine and spirits throughout his adult life. You might say it was in the blood. His father John Dickens was the son of the butler and housekeeper in a great house, Crewe Hall, and grew up seeing grandees and politicians such as Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan drinking wine in heroic quantities. John Dickens became a humble clerk in the Navy Pay Office, but he kept an account with a wine merchant – and when he failed to settle his bills he found himself in a debtors’ prison. His son Charles, scarcely eleven years old, had to pawn the family’s books and furniture and go to work in a blacking factory. Charles grew up unlike his father in every respect except for a taste for wine.

A drinker not a drunkard

At Christmas 1836 Charles, now 23, married and a published author, described to a friend how ‘I arrived home at one o’clock in the morning dead drunk, and was put to bed by my loving missus.’ It’s hard to blame him for this lapse. He was awaiting the birth of his first child, while in the middle of writing his first novel in monthly instalments, and starting on his second, which would go out simultaneously, also monthly. He asked a lot of himself and worked and played with the energy of five men, but Dickens was never a drunkard. Images of Christmas

Images of Christmas cheer

Exhilaration, conviviality, Christmas cheer are what we associate with Dickens. He mocked the Temperance movement in his writing and blamed the success of Gin Shops on ‘hunger, filth and foul air’. He believed moderate drinking was good for you, and his accounts of what he drank, in letters to friends, suggest that alcohol was his medicine as well as his pleasure. Driving himself as hard as any writer has ever done, he relaxed with a drink, whether iced Champagne, iced gin punch (‘the most wonderful beverage in the world, ... ought to be laid on by the Board of Health’). Or again, with ‘some really extraordinary French brandy’ just acquired, or some ‘rayther uncommon port’ – all descriptions taken from his letters to friends, inviting them to share in the pleasure.

Broadening horizons

In the 1840s continental travel led him to happy discoveries, that white wine was sold at a penny farthing a pint in Genoa, red wine for 10d a bottle in France. France became his favourite destination. He admired the people and their way of life, learnt the language, made friends and spent long periods in Paris and Boulogne. His Boulogne wine merchant, F. Bourgois, supplied him well: ‘I could get no such wines as his in Paris, for double the money at least. The dinner Bordeaux is remarkably good... and some light cool white wines, as Chablis and Sauterne, I have already in the most charming order.’

Brandy’s restorative power

In England he acquired a Kentish home, Gad’s Hill, with fine cellars. From 1858 until the end of his life in 1870, he put much of his energy into giving public readings from his work, travelling by train and drawing appreciative crowds all over England, Scotland, Ireland and in America. He loved doing it, and it brought in good money, but it made considerable physical demands and put a strain on his system as his health began to fail. His last manager, George Dolby, described how on each train journey he routinely drank a brandy an hour into the trip, topping it up an hour later with a glass of sherry. Both men smoked cigars continuously. When it came to the readings in the evening, he revived himself between the first and the second with oysters and Champagne.

Failing health and increased self-medication

In 1865 he had the first attack of gout, which tormented him for the rest of his life, giving him excruciating pain and making him lame. This was a double problem, since he found it absolutely necessary to take long walks when working on a novel – physical exercise stoked up his creative energy. He managed to finish Our Mutual Friend in the autumn of 1865, but it was his last completed novel. During his American tour of 1867-8 he became so ill that he could take almost no solid food. He described to his daughter Mamey how he subsisted on cream and rum at 7am, sherry cobbler and biscuit at 12, a pint of Champagne at 3, at 5 to 8 an egg beaten into sherry, then hot beef tea during the evening reading. Whether a doctor would have approved of this regime or not, Dickens grew better and returned to England in tolerable shape and spirits. During the next year he entertained many American friends at Gad’s Hill. They found the wines served at dinner ‘irreproachable’.

A liquid as well as literary legacy

In 1869, on another English reading tour, he made the decision to give up drinking Champagne to help him get through the evening’s performance. He knew things were not right, and soon a stroke obliged him to bring the readings to a close. In March 1870 he made an emotional farewell to his loving public in London. Still he worked to the end, dying on 9th June, leaving an unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to tantalize his readers. He also left a cellar containing an amazing amount of wine and spirits: 15 dozen bottles of sherry, four dozen Old Madeira, six dozen Port, 16 dozen Médoc, 16 dozen Bourgois (presumably wine chosen by his Boulogne wine merchant), 30 dozen Champagne, 14 dozen Milk Punch, five dozen Pineapple Rum, 27 dozen brandy, 17 dozen whiskey, plus various magnums of wine, 18 magnums of port, 12 magnums of claret, together with beer and gin.

The sins of the father?

What made him accumulate these quantities, enough to entertain friends for years? Perhaps the memory of poverty in childhood, and his father unable to pay his wine merchant and hauled off to the Marshalsea prison. Charles Dickens always paid his way, and was unfailingly generous to those who sought or needed his help, men, women and children. He believed too that wine and spirits were good for people. A man who worked in his office towards the end of his life testified, ‘I never saw him drunk myself. I have seen him several times exhilarated, however.’ It’s a nice distinction, and a little exhilaration may be allowed to the creator of Pickwick, the Artful Dodger, Squeers, Quilp, Mrs Gamp, Mr Micawber and Flora Finching.

The restorative powers of Champagne and sherry!

Among many stories he told of himself, this is one of my favourites. He wrote to his sister Fanny in March 1844, describing how he went to Birmingham to give a fund-raising speech for the local Polytechnic, newly established to provide lectures and a library for working men and women. The cause was one he believed in passionately, but he arrived tired out from dancing till three in the morning the night before in Liverpool. He restored himself at the inn where he was staying by taking ‘a pint of Champagne and a pint of sherry’. He assured Fanny that the combination of the two made him as cool as a cucumber and as hard as iron, and told her he put on a fancy waistcoat, and that he took himself to Birmingham Town Hall, where he received a rapturous welcome, and quite simply delivered the best speech he had ever given.

You can see why he called himself ‘the Inimitable’ – but it might not be wise to follow his method of preparing for public speaking.

Charles Dickens

Claire Tomalin’s biography, ‘Charles Dickens: A Life’ published last year by Viking, has been described as one of the most insightful written on this complex and gifted character. It is available in hardback and paperback.

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