OLIVER WITH A TWIST

Charles Dick­ens ap­pre­ci­ated liquor in his prose and his life, writes Rosie Schaap

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

He’s no sea­sonal superstar like Scrooge, but let’s spare a thought for Krook, the un­for­tu­nate rag-and-bot­tle man in Bleak House, Charles Dick­ens’s great novel of the law and its tor­tu­ous machi­na­tions.

A drinker of gin in colos­sal quan­tity, Krook per­ishes af­ter go­ing up in flames, the vic­tim of the most in­fa­mous in­stance of spon­ta­neous hu­man com­bus­tion in English lit­er­a­ture. Some draw a con­nec­tion be­tween his im­mod­er­ate in­take of al­co­hol and his pre­dis­po­si­tion for au­toim­mo­la­tion; I keep in mind that the cheap, cor­ro­sive rotgut of Krook’s place and time was dif­fer­ent from the nice stuff we take with tonic to­day.

Hap­pily, not all drink­ing in Dick­ens ends with such a bang, nor was gin the only op­tion in his day. (Dick­ens’s own cel­lar also held brandy, rum, whisky and an im­pres­sive in­ven­tory of wines.) The author “was a drinker, but a tem­per­ate one”, wrote his great-grand­son Cedric Dick­ens in the charm­ingly en­ter­tain­ing 1980 book Drink­ing With Dick­ens. Dick­ens’s imag­ined world is thickly pop­u­lated by drinkers of many kinds: there are hard cases such as Krook and the ab­ject Mr Dolls of Our Mu­tual Friend, who be­trayed his daugh­ter, Jenny Wren, “for sixty-three pen­ny­worths of rum”. There are “medic­i­nal drinkers” such as David Cop­per­field’s land­lady Mrs Crupp. But just like most drinkers I’ve known and loved, “most drinkers in Dick­ens drink to give plea­sure”.

Gin, Cedric Dick­ens con­firms, “was not a re­spectable drink: even in a punch it wasn’t par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with the nobs.” But it was cer­tainly ca­pa­ble of giv­ing plea­sure: his il­lus­tri­ous great-grand­fa­ther “loved the rit­ual of mix­ing the evening glass of gin punch, which he per­formed with all the en­ergy and dis­crim­i­na­tion of Mr Mi­caw­ber”. In David Cop­per­field, the poor, pro­lix and tragi­com­i­cally pos­i­tive Wilkins Mi­caw­ber is up­lifted by a hum­ble gin punch: “I never saw a man so thor­oughly en­joy him­self amid the fra­grance of lemon-peel and su­gar, the odour of burn­ing spirit, 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 a punch, a for­tune for his fam­ily down to the lat­est pos­ter­ity.”

More fit­ting for a fes­tive gath­er­ing of friends and fam­ily is a con­coc­tion in­voked by Scrooge him­self, near the end of A Christ­mas Carol. “I’ll raise your salary, and en­deav­our to as­sist your strug­gling fam­ily,” Scrooge tells Bob Cratchit, his long-suf­fer­ing clerk, “and we will dis­cuss your af­fairs this very af­ter­noon, over a Christ­mas bowl of smok­ing bishop!” That’s some­thing the piti­less, par­si­mo­nious old Scrooge never would have sug­gested. In­stead, this fra­grant wine mulled with roasted or­anges, su­gar and spice is a liq­uid re­flec­tion of the new, im­proved Scrooge: warm and sweet, and — as it’s meant for shar­ing — gen­er­ous of spirit.

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