what the dickens


Yesterday I mentioned that there are things I read on the internet that bring me up short. But I don’t do all my reading on the internet and it would be unfair if I omitted to say that the same is true for things I read in books.

I’m not going to haggle over whether listening to audio books is actually “reading”; I’ll leave that discussion for another day. So, for the sake of the current discussion, I’ve recently been slipping between reading a Ruth Rendell during meal and coffee breaks and listening to a wonderful dramatic reading of Barnaby Rudge while I’m out and about. It’s the latter that has stopped me in my tracks and made me rewind on several occasions.

At the very end of Chapter 19, Mr Varden the locksmith and his wife and daughter arrive at the Maypole Inn, Chigwell. This first part of the story takes place in 1775 and it seems as if back then the delights of a country pub lunch were something worth celebrating in writing.

It is a poor heart that never rejoices—it must have been the poorest, weakest, and most watery heart that ever beat, which would not have warmed towards the Maypole bar. Mrs Varden’s did directly. She could no more have reproached John Willet among those household gods, the kegs and bottles, lemons, pipes, and cheese, than she could have stabbed him with his own bright carving-knife. The order for dinner too—it might have soothed a savage. ‘A bit of fish,’ said John to the cook, ‘and some lamb chops (breaded, with plenty of ketchup), and a good salad, and a roast spring chicken, with a dish of sausages and mashed potatoes, or something of that sort.’ Something of that sort! The resources of these inns! To talk carelessly about dishes, which in themselves were a first-rate holiday kind of dinner, suitable to one’s wedding-day, as something of that sort: meaning, if you can’t get a spring chicken, any other trifle in the way of poultry will do—such as a peacock, perhaps!

I don’t think I’ve ever come across breaded lamb chops, but that wasn’t the menu item that surprised me most. It was the ketchup. Surely that can’t have been common nearly two and a half centuries ago?

Well, Google is your friend, as they say. I’ve now done a bit of research and I’m amazed to find that the reference to “ketchup” is not in the least anachronistic. It preceded Worcestershire sauce by over a century although, since early recipes for ketchup called for ingredients such as mushrooms, walnuts, oysters, or anchovies, and the result was a thin dark paste, I’m not sure it wasn’t a direct forebear of Lea & Perrins. That, incidentally, was created in the first half of the nineteenth century, shortly after the first recipes for tomato ketchup started to appear.

I’m not sure whether the locksmith’s daughter Dolly actually partook of the culinary delights. Certainly she didn’t dwell long over them before heading off to take a letter to Emma Haredale and the start of chapter 20 finds the two girls together.

Emma is very unhappy and, although Dolly keeps getting distracted by the delightful sight of her own reflection in the looking glass, she does her best to be sympathetic.

‘[…] it’s very sad indeed, but when things are at the worst they are sure to mend.’

‘But are you sure they are at the worst?’ asked Emma with a smile.

‘Why, I don’t see how they can very well be more unpromising than they are; I really don’t,’ said Dolly. ‘And I bring something to begin with.’

‘Not from Edward?’

Dolly nodded and smiled, and feeling in her pockets (there were pockets in those days) with an affectation of not being able to find what she wanted, which greatly enhanced her importance, at length produced the letter.

Let me just repeat that parenthetical phrase: there were pockets in those days.

This again sounds far too modern to be plausible. Surely the voices bemoaning the lack of pockets in women’s clothes are a recent phenomenon?

Again, it seems I am mistaken. A quick Google search – women’s clothes pockets – has dropped me down a rabbit hole of sartorial history, gender politics, feminism, sexism and class distinctions.

In the same way that the Maypole’s ketchup wouldn’t have been recognisable as the ketchup we’re used to today, I’m not sure Dolly’s pockets were actually what we’d call pockets. Rather, I think they may have been free-hanging pockets tied around the waist under the top skirt and accessed through a pocket slit in the side seam.

There was no reason to have included the photo at the start of this post (other than that it was taken recently) and there is no conclusion to be drawn from my ramblings today. Perhaps when I started to write I thought I’d be saying that there really is nothing new under the sun. Having done a bit more research, though, it seems that even things that are superficially the same may in fact be very different.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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