The English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870) lived in a time that was probably one of the toughest in history for the poor and uneducated people. As the industrial revolution made many fine crafts otiose. The working class had to settle for long and underpaid days in the factories, as the only little bit of joy came from alcoholic beverages. No wonder alcoholism was quite a common thing those days. Many employers paid their employees directly in alcohol, since money would be spent on that anyway. Like no other Dickens could put the harsh every day life on paper and that’s no wonder. The writer himself was quite the drinker too, as well as a frequent visitor of whores. In this way he had something in common with another great English writer from his generation Lord Byron. But where he came from nobility Dickens worked himself up from the factories, into the English middle class and on to make his own fortune, which wasn’t easy at the time. It’s absolutely impressive how he stormed up the social ladder, intoxicated and with a drink in his hand.
In the early 19th century Dickens’ lifestory seemed to be one of the many sad tales in those days. As his father John was thrown in debtor’s prison (a special well-stocked jail for people who couldn’t pay their debts in those days), young Charles (the second of eight children) had to quit school and start working in a factory. For many kids in simular situations this would be the start of a lifelong “career”, but not for Dickens. He invested in himself and wrote novels, short stories, plays and poems, making him the best known and respected British author after William Shakespeare. Among his work are world famous titles like The Adventures of Oliver Twist and a Christmas Carrol, in which he gave the heartbreaking poverty in the British lowerclass a face.
In most of his work alcohol also played a big role. The many drunken characters are not completely fictional as they were a usual sight in the streets and pubs of London where Dickens found his inspiration. As a matter of fact everyone was drinking some kind of alcohol at the time since the water in London was completely unsanitary. The American professor Robert Patten, who studied Dickens’ time and work, explains: “You can imagine that everyone was out drinking, but it was healthier than effluvium from the Thames. Beer and ale were the drinks of the lower classes, along with gin. While the upper classes opted for wines and sherries and other reinforced liquors. The middle classes would do punches because they had boiling water in them. Those punches are disgusting.”
That last statement is backed up by a recipe for Dicken’s very own punch recipe that he shared in a lettre in 1847. “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), 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.” Let’s say this recipe is just slightly better than modern days toilet wine in prison.
It is however unlikely that Dickens himself drank his own punch for long. As his status as a writer grew he could afford good wines and cherries, which he did in large amounts. And not just for himself. When his son Henry started his first year at Cambridge University the writer didn’t want him to go thirsty. Therefor he sent him 36 bottles of sherry, 36 bottles of light claret, 24 bottles of port and 6 bottles of brandy plus 250 British Pounds (in those days a huge amount of money) described as “handsome for all your wants.”
About Charles Dickens himself there are two theories. A popular one is that he was a moderate drinker who hated teetotalers but his latest biography from 2011, , paints a different picture. The author states that Dickens was in fact a heavy drinker (although not an alcoholic) with a bad temper that constantly cheated on his wife, even though she gave birth to 10 (!) of his children. The cellars of his house Gad’s Hill Place in Kent were full of fine rum, sherry, brandy and Scotch whisky. Moderated or heavy drinker, at least he was a man who didn’t want to run out of booze. And for that we respect him, as for his writing of course.