There are little bits from Dickens that are still known even among people who've never read a word of 19th century literature, the way that people who know nothing about science fiction often at least know who Luke Skywalker's father is. Everyone knows that Tiny Tim said "God bless us, every one," and everyone knows that Oliver Twist wanted more gruel.
The last of the "early" novels was Martin Chuzzlewit, which is now a go-to novel to name when you want to mention an obscure Dickens book that no one reads anymore (though a quick search on Twitter shows that right now it's being read by many, many more people than are reading any of my books, so there's that). Really, I think this one is badly under-rated. It has a fairly coherent plot, lots of great characters, and some really dynamite scenes - the early section where he describes the neighborhood and boarding house known as "Todgers" is one of my favorite passages in Dickens. Here's an excerpt:
You couldn't walk about Todgers's neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and byways, and court-yards, and passages; and you never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street.....
Several fruit-brokers had their marts near Todgers's; and one of the first impressions wrought upon the stranger's senses was of oranges — of damaged oranges — with blue and green bruises on them, festering in boxes, or mouldering away in cellars...
There were churches also by dozens, with many a ghostly little churchyard, all overgrown with such straggling vegetation as springs up spontaneously from damp, and graves, and rubbish... Here, paralysed old watchmen guarded the bodies of the dead at night, year after year, until at last they joined that solemn brotherhood; and, saving that they slept below the ground a sounder sleep than even they had ever known above it, and were shut up in another kind of box, their condition can hardly be said to have undergone any material change when they, in turn, were watched themselves.
Like a lot of early Dickens, it doesn't seem like a well-planned book. It starts out being a plot about Martin Chuzzlewit, Sr, about to die and having all his far-flung relatives trying to be named his heir, then goes off on tangents, forgets where it's going, and circles around a few times. But it improves as it goes, I think, and largely abandoning the early part of the plot was a good idea in the end.
The "breakout" character of the novel, the one everyone remembers, is Mrs. Gamp, a nurse whose job is to sit up at night with sick people in their houses, where she spends most of her time drunk off her ass and eating all the food she can find. As one in her profession would have to be, she's very flippant about death; she wanders into new jobs, looks at the sick guy, and says "He'd make a lovely corpse!"
But being surrounded by death gives her a very good excuse to drink, as seen in this scene, in which she reports on a conversation between herself and Mrs. Harris, her imaginary friend, and explains that she needs a bit of liquor to get her through her depressing job:
'You have become indifferent since then, I suppose?' said Mr Pecksniff. 'Use is second nature, Mrs Gamp.'
'You may well say second nater, sir,' returned that lady. 'One's first ways is to find sich things a trial to the feelings, and so is one's lasting custom. If it wasn't for the nerve a little sip of liquor gives me (I never was able to do more than taste it), I never could go through with what I sometimes has to do. "Mrs Harris," I says, at the very last case as ever I acted in, which it was but a young person, "Mrs Harris," I says, "leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don't ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what I'm engaged to do, according to the best of my ability."
"Mrs Gamp," she says, in answer, "if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen pence a day for working people, and three and six for gentlefolks-- night watching,"' said Mrs Gamp with emphasis, '"being a extra charge--you are that inwallable person."
"Mrs Harris," I says to her, "don't name the charge, for if I could afford to lay all my feller creeturs out for nothink, I would gladly do it, sich is the love I bears 'em. But what I always says to them as has the management of matters, Mrs Harris"'--here she kept her eye on Mr Pecksniff--'"be they gents or be they ladies, is, don't ask me whether I won't take none, or whether I will, but leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged."'
"I was never able to do more than taste it" my ass. She spends most of her time at work drinking, eating and collecting kickbacks from Mr. Mould, the undertaker she recommends when her charges inevitably die.
She was such a popular character in her day that people started calling umbrellas "gamps" because she always carried one, and even today eBay is chock full of Mrs. Gamp figurines, salt shakers, spoons, tea cups, and plates. She was as well known a lush in her day as Barney on The Simpsons is now. Come to think of it, she looks so much like him that she could just about be Barney's great grandmother.
There are a few things Mrs. Gamp is particularly fond of, such as cucumbers (she calls them "cowcumbers"), porter, and a particular drink that she mentions having made many times in a month known as caudle.
Dickens was familiar with caudle himself - he spoke in one of his "travelogue" books, The Uncommercial Traveler, of having seen it served at a wake that was held for stillborn quadruplets. It seems to have been a drink used to comfort people - it's probably from this drink that we get the word "coddled" and the even more insidious "mollycoddled."
Caudle is another spiced drink for which there are lots and lots of recipes, some going back to Shakespeare's day. Some use brandy or wine in place of ale, which is what I used. The one constant is that a major ingredient in them is gruel - a very thin oatmeal that was used to feed the poor (or, in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge, the cheapskates).
Really, spiced ale with oatmeal in it didn't sound so terrible to me. And most of the drinks in these books have turned out to be quite tasty. But you can't win them all.
2 cups of gruel (2 cups water, about 1/4th cup of oatmeal)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
pinches of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg
1 12oz bottle of ale
Boil the water, striring in the oatmeal and adding the dry ingredients, then, when the oatmeal is as cooked as it's going to get, mix in the ale. I thought it appropriate to use Ebenezer Ale, which is a dark brown nutty one from a brewery called Bridgeport.
This made for a reasonably tasty spiced ale drink, but the oatmeal dominated the affair, both in terms of taste and texture. As I've found from all these egg drinks, Victorians seem to have been far more used to goopy drinks than we are. Even now, the texture here may not be unfamiliar to those who are into, say, bubble tea. But I never quite saw the point of adding the oatmeal to this one. Not nearly as tasty as the fairly similar egg hot, which was sort of like this, but with an egg instead of gruel. When it comes down to choosing between eggs and gruel, pick the eggs.
I thought this one was pretty crappy on the whole. Without the oatmeal it would be a middling entry; with it, it's just sort of odd, calling to mind the sensation one gets trying to down some Rice Krispies that have been in the milk long enough to eliminate all semblance of crisp.
Mrs. Gamp probably just made this stuff because it gave her the chance to drink while putting on a show of doing something healthy and comforting. And, by the way, the idea that it could be used to comfort the bereaved doesn't hold up for me, either. It's bad enough that someone is dead, why make it worse by making people drink gruel? Perhaps other recipes are better. When I tried it again using oatmeal water (straining out the oats and just using the water), it was more drinkable, but still not great. The oat taste still dominated.
I feel good about having tried it just just for the bragging rights. Now, when I'm in a room with men who are talking about hunting and camping and shooting stuff, I can nod, look all tough, and say, "Yeah. I've had gruel." But no, sir, I do not want some more.