1: The Beverage

"A merry Christmas, Bob!" said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!" (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol , Stave Five: "The End of It")

As we draw near the end of A Christmas Carol , we encounter this delightfully Dickensian reference to a jovial seasonal concoction, a Christmas punch which Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed a "drink divine." No need to suspend your disbelief, willingly or otherwise: Bishop was indeed a tavern drink popular in the eighteenth century and defined by the tea-guzzling Dr. Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary as "a cant word for a mixture of wine, oranges, and sugar." Apparently, this punch (probably a favourite of John Dickens, Charles's profligate father who served as a model for David Copperfield 'sWilkins Micawber) was made by pouring hot red wine (Jonathan Swift recommended Lisbon wine or claret in which a pound and a half of sugar loaf had been dissolved) over ripe bitter oranges (presumably peeled). The combination is then heated or "mulled"‹although one imagines Scrooge plunging a heated poker into an earthenware pitcher, the traditional method involved pushing the vessel far down into the fire. Cloves, star anise, and cinnamon are added according to taste. It is sometimes referred to as "purple wine," and received the name "Bishop" from its colour. This punch, which is also the focal point of a repast in Chapter XXXVII of Nicholas Nickleby, sounds suspiciously like a hot Sangria.

"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" (165).

Peter Ackroyd in his tome Dickens (1990) notes that, though he sustained himself through the second grueling American reading tour on oysters and champagne, Dickens was "very abstemious" (248). Although in The Pickwick Papers (1835-6) there are 35 breakfasts, 32 dinners, 10 luncheons, and 249 separate references to drink (albeit, not all of it alcoholic), in later life Dickens's fascination with gustatorial bonhomie tapered off. In later life, he seems to have preferred, as one of his guests once noted, "to participate in other people's enjoyment of what was laid before them rather than to have any pleasure in the good things himself." His office boy (not unlike the street boy at the close of A Christmas Carol , one suspects) confirms that Dickens "wasn't but a light eater himself." Concludes Ackroyd, "We must be very careful, therefore, before drawing easy parallels between his life and his work. He enjoyed the sentiment rather than the thing " (248). Ackroyd is probably correct that, after his horrible stint at Warren's Blacking, young Dickens found immense comfort in food and drink, not having had much of either during those traumatic months following his twelfth birthday.

A final note, if you feel tempted to imbibe somewhat too freely of these splendid beverages: while he did not hold with "the Total Abstinence Principle" (A Christmas Carol, Stave Five), Dickens was a great believer in moderation (he should have followed his own dictum when it came to a certain young actress named Ellen Ternan). "The widespread assertion that drunkenness was the cause of many evils rather than a result of already existing ones angered him, as if eradicating a symptom in any way dealt with the disease" (Fred Kaplan, Dickens [1988], 198). Although Dickens respected the Temperance movement's goals, in "A Plea for Total Abstinence" (1860) he expresses little patience with those who sought eradicate the consumption of alcohol. His many references to liquor often prompted letters denouncing what appeared to be his advocacy of inebriation. In a letter of 25 March 1847 he answered one such complaint thus:

I have no doubt whatever that the warm stuff in the jug at Bob Cratchit's Christmas dinner, had a very pleasant effect on the simple party. I am certain that if I had been at Mr. Fezziwig's ball, I should have taken a little negus — and possibly not a little beer — and been none the worse for it, in heart or head. I am very sure that the working people of this country have not too many household enjoyments, and I could not, in my fancy or in actual deed, deprive them of this one when it is so innocently shared. (Letter , Nonesuch Press, II: 20-21)

Negus, by the way, is yet another Dickensian punch (see Dombey and Son XLIX and Our Mutual Friend VI); this one consists of a bottle of port or sherry, one glass of brandy, the juice of one lemon, two pints of boiling water, four ounces of sugar, and nutmeg to taste. If neither Bishop nor Negus are to your Yuletide, taste sample such Bozzian beverages as Sherry Flip, Sherry Cobbler, Mulled Port, Shrub and Water, Purl, Dog's Nose, and Egg-Hot for Two.

Related Material

Charles Dickens and Two Kinds of Punch: No. 2: The Journal of Humour: Continued in Punch Magazine (1841-1992): An Introduction


Victorian Web DickensPunch

Last modified 4 December 4 2000

Last modified 8 June 2007