Dickens gives us a masterclass
My father always said Dickens invented Christmas. I rather thought God did that, but I know what he meant. It’s hard to beat ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the lavish description of seasonal food in Victorian shops:
The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.
Twenty-first century supermarket shoppers won’t be impressed by the food itself – it’s the excitement with which Dickens describes it that give it its allure. There’s an energy to the description coming from the verbs: ‘lolling, ‘tumbling’, ‘shining’, ‘entreating,’ ‘beseeching.’ The sentences are packed with noun phrases, reflecting the abundance and excess of the provisions. Finally, the senses are appealed to – sight through the memorable similes such as comparing chestnuts to ‘the waistcoats of jolly gentlemen,’ texture through the reference to the Spanish Onions ‘shining in the fatness of their growth,’ smell in the ‘fragrance’ of the filberts, taste in the ‘juicy persons’. As for sound, well it’s there all the way through in the opulence and lavishness of the vocabulary, which lingers on the mouth as the food lingers on the lips. What a feast of words! We might have lost Dickens’ sense of wonder at Christmas produce, but we can still emulate his skills at conveying our joy at the delights of the season.
(I’m going to take Christmas and New Year off but I’ll see you in January).