In London it is not hard to find surreal juxtapositions of the old and new. One of the most striking, I think, is the view from the upstairs window in Dr Johnson’s House.
17 Gough Square can be found in the warren of alleyways between Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Fetter Lane. It is the only surviving London residence of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). The perfectly restored eighteenth-century building has been open to the public as a museum since 1914.
Inside one can easily imagine oneself in the reign of King George II—until one looks out of the north windows. A massive glass and steel block of barristers’ offices at 5 New St Square fills the view. There is a moment of dislocation in time. One feels like a Georgian suddenly confronted with a temple to an alien god outside of his bedroom.
I have expanded my essay, An Account of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, with a lot of new text and images. But I thought the photographs deserved a post of their own. Here are some corners of the Cheese that were most familiar to Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith.
Every December we find ourselves in thrall to Charles Dickens and his seasonal classic, A Christmas Carol. Whether you read the novel every year or encounter it in one of its many adaptations and pastiches for stage or screen, there is no avoiding it. It is one of those rare stories that everyone knows, whether they have read the book or not: the miser Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by ghosts and apparitions who show him visions of his own past, present, and future, and those of the people with whom his life is intertwined, rekindling in his heart the warmth of Christian charity.
Dickens was a great keeper of Christmas. Among his earliest writings, the newspaper columns collected in 1836 as Sketches By Boz, there is a commemoration of the holiday which contains many of the themes he would later revisit in A Christmas Carol. He writes, “Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas…Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers.”
In the first half of the nineteenth-century, Christmas was not universally or extravagantly celebrated in England. Of course midwinter had been a time of revelry in northern Europe since pagan antiquity, marking the beginning of the return of the sun, and the retreat of darkness. But Christmas was never as significant as Easter in the Christian liturgical year. And while a history of merrymaking endured, especially in the countryside, where the rhythms of nature were better felt, in the busy commercial hub of London it was for many people just another day of work.
By the time Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 there were signs of a revival of Christmas in the popular culture. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert introduced the Christmas Tree to England from Germany in 1840. Two decades earlier, American author Washington Irving had recorded the surviving traditions of Christmas in rural England during his long residence in the country. “Old Christmas” was published in 1819 in Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which also contained “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”
Dickens himself included a marvelous description of Christmas festivities in his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, or, The Pickwick Papers, published in 1837. This great sprawling comic novel follows Samuel Pickwick, retired businessman and philanthropist, who, together with members of his eponymous London club, sets out on a series of misadventures to enlarge “his sphere of observation, to the advancement of knowledge and the diffusion of learning.” In one episode Pickwick spends Christmas at the manor of the rough, generous country squire Mr Wardle. Here family, friends, tenants, and servants gather together as one social body, undisrupted by the class warfare of the industrial revolution, under the benevolent lordship of Wardle. There is dancing, kissing under the mistletoe, a raucous game of blind man’s buff, quaffing of wassail, feasting, and storytelling.
It is interesting that both Dickens and Irving relegated Christmas festivities to the countryside, where the holiday and the great old manor houses in which it was still kept, were depicted as survivals of a bygone age. In the early nineteenth century this was probably accurate enough.
A Christmas Carol changed the way Christmas was celebrated in England. Dickens had intended it to do as much. He did not merely want to glorify the folk traditions of the season. The immediate impetus for the novel was his sympathy and concern for the poor, in particular children. It was a passion nearer to his own heart than anyone could have guessed at the time.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 during a period of maritime build-up at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His good-natured but improvident father, John Dickens, kept the family in middle-class comfort with a well paid job at the Navy Pay Office. For the first ten years of his life Charles Dickens thrived in an atmosphere of love and encouragement. He romped in nature. He read voraciously: The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding. He wrote stories and staged drawing room theatricals. But John Dickens found himself increasingly in debt. He moved the family to London in 1822 where they struggled to make ends meet. In 1824 he was prosecuted by his creditors and sent to the Marshalsea debtors prison. The entire family lived with him at the Marshalsea except for twelve-year old Charles who was put to work. A job was found for him at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, near the present-day Embankment tube station. He was paid six shillings per week to work ten hour days glueing labels to cans of boot polish in appalling conditions. He never spoke of the experience but he gave an account of it to his friend and biographer John Forster:
The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again.
In time, John Dickens paid off his creditors and was released from the Marshalsea. Charles was allowed to leave the blacking warehouse and return to a semblance of a normal childhood. But the experience changed him forever. Feelings of abandonment and betrayal and loneliness and fear haunted him long after.
The success of Dickens’s early novels made him a very rich man. He relished the role of a celebrity and a gentleman and spent lavishly on himself and his family. But the wretched children whose lives he had briefly and traumatically shared were never far from his mind. He always considered it his duty to employ both pen and purse toward a remedy for the ills of society.
When he wrote A Christmas Carol, he became, in the words of the actor and author Simon Callow,
a spokesman, not just for the oppressed and the disadvantaged, but for the essential integrity of a nation in the throes of radical transformation. There was a widespread unease at the way in which capitalism was evolving, at the loss of community and the inter-relatedness of the groups within it. The writing of the book sprang directly from his horror at the condition of children in the mines. Christmas, Dickens insisted, was mocked unless the absolute dregs of society were rehabilitated and the root causes of their rejection and elimination by society addressed.
This was something that Dickens believed could only be accomplished by the changing of hearts—and a changing of the way that business was done. He was no proto-Marxist. Callow notes, “Dickens didn’t believe you could fob off your personal responsibilities on to the state. He…didn’t believe in a welfare state, but in absolute direct human action.” How different money is in the hands of Scrooge than it is in those of Mr Wardle, or Scrooge’s first employer, the magnanimous old Fezziwig.
It is no coincidence that Dickens’s greatest call to charity was in a book that also called readers to feast and festivity. All of these are expressions of an expansiveness, an overabundance, a pouring forth, of the heart. One cannot exist without the other.
The monstrousness of Scrooge, as we find him at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, is in his stinginess of heart as well as money. Likewise, his reformation at the end of the novel is a conversion of the heart. Charity and benevolence and festivity and love and joy pour forth in equal measure. He becomes the Dickensian ideal: a “whole” man.
It was a stroke of genius on the author’s part to bring about this transformation with the aid of the supernatural. There is an atavistic power to the evocation of ghosts at this time of year, much as there is to the reenactment of the ancient feast.
I have always liked the English custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. It is not as popular as it used to be. We think of it as a Victorian custom, largely because of A Christmas Carol, but it is much, much older. Like other folkways it has receded from the forefront of the culture but we still encounter it.
Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).
The telling of ghost stories has a corollary in other customs that cast an eerie mood over the Christmas vigil. The parlor game snap-dragon was mentioned by Shakespeare and Dryden, and has an entry in Dr Johnson’s dictionary. It was already an old game in the nineteenth century when Dickens wrote of it in The Pickwick Papers. Snap-dragon is played with a bowl of raisins, soaked in brandy. The lights are dimmed and the brandy is set on fire, producing an uncanny blue flame. Participants attempt to snatch raisins out of the fire and extinguish them by popping them into their mouths and eating them. Writing in his journal, The Tatler, in the eighteenth century, Sir Richard Steele explained, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.”
In Pickwick Papers Dickens connected the playing of snap-dragon and the telling of “old stories” in his depiction of a Christmas Eve revel at Dingley Dell Farm, the Kentish manor house of Mr Wardle. After the dance, when the mood of the assembled guests had settled, Dickens writes:
[T]here was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.
“This,” said Mr Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”
“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.”
I think these traditions serve a ritual purpose similar to the antimasque in a masque. They are part of a performance, a folk ceremony, outside the formal liturgy of the church, that commemorates the triumph of Divine order over the fallen world.
The masque was a form of entertainment popular in Jacobean England. It was partly theater and partly dance. It would begin with an antimasque: a short vignette that represented the world in chaos. This might involve portrayals of drunken disorder, witchcraft, or war. The masque proper would then begin with the arrival of the king and queen and courtiers, disguised as ancient gods. They would conquer the antimasque and bring order to the symbolic universe of the hall—a transformation represented by a formal dance.
In the Christian liturgical year, the season of Advent that leads up to Christmas, is a time of fasting and preparation. It is a solemn season. We are given the opportunity to reflect on the hope and hardship of those who lived in the world before Christ was born into it: a world of darkness, confusion, and chaos. Every year we reenact the vigil of those who waited faithfully for the Savior through dark days. When Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas, and we remember the arrival of God in the world, darkness gives way to light, solemnity to celebration, fast to feasting, ghost stories to carols, chaos to Godly order.
The manuscripts of all five of Dickens’s Christmas novels, including A Christmas Carol, are on display together for the first time at the Morgan Library in New York where Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas runs through January 14, 2018.
Callow, Simon. (2012) Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. London: Harper Press.
Dickens, Charles. (1836) Sketches By Boz. London: John Macrone.
Dickens, Charles. (1837) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall.
Dickens, Charles. (1843) A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hall.
Forster, John. (1872-4) The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman & Hall.
Steele, Richard. (1887) Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer. London: Cassell & Company.
Down a narrow little alley in London called Wine Office Court, entered through Fleet Street, is a venerable and time-worn pub called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. It is my favorite establishment in the Square Mile, a sentiment I know is widely shared. The Cheese is steeped in history, dating back at least to the reign of King Charles II. (It was built on the ashes of an earlier pub shortly after the Great Fire of 1666.) Often I have enjoyed a quiet lunch here in the atmospheric front rooms or a drink in one of the barrooms after Evensong at St Paul’s. The labyrinth of cellars and sub-cellars was the undercroft of a thirteenth-century monastery that once occupied the site. The pub is popular with City financial workers and attracts sightseers for a pint where Dickens and Dr Johnson drank before them. It has drawn a similar clientele for more than a century.
The Cheese has long-standing literary associations. Samuel Johnson, in the eighteenth century, and Charles Dickens, in the nineteenth, were the most famous regulars, but Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, James Boswell, William Makepeace Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Mark Twain, Lord Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W.B. Yeats, and P.G. Wodehouse all refreshed themselves here over the years.
When the journalist Cyrus Redding took up residence nearby in 1806, there were still a few old men who remembered Dr Johnson and his circle meeting at the Cheese years before. In his memoir, Fifty Years’ Recollections, Literary and Personal, Redding wrote,
I often dined at the Cheshire Cheese. Johnson and his friends, I was informed, used to do the same, and I was told I should see individuals who had met them there. This I found to be correct. The company was more select than in later times. Johnson had been dead about twenty years, but there were Fleet Street tradesmen who well remembered both Johnson and Goldsmith in this place of entertainment.
There are mementos of that time in the tavern today. Entering the Cheese through Wine Office Court, one finds oneself in a hallway with rooms opening on either side. To the right is a cozy little barroom where a sea-coal fire burns in the hearth all year round. A notice carved above the door reads, “Gentlemen only served in this bar.” Presumably it is not enforced.
To the left is the chop room. It was here that Dr Johnson was said to have held court. The room remains largely unchanged to this day. Gloomy light from the alley, candlelight from the tables, and the antique smell of the coal fire from across the hall, create a timeless atmosphere. A painting of Dr Johnson hangs over his regular seat at the far end of the communal table along the righthand wall. The space to his left was regularly occupied by Charles Dickens a generation later. A plaque in the wall above the bench identifies Dickens’s customary seat. It is a nice place to sit, in the company of these writers, separated only by time.
Dickens frequented a number of Fleet Street taverns. Much of his working life was spent here, first as a young clerk, at the inns of court, then as an editor, conducting the magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round. A scene in his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities is set at the Cheshire Cheese. Dickens writes,
Drawing his arm through his own, he took him down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street, and so, up a covered way, into a tavern. Here they were shown into a little room, where Charles Darnay was soon recruiting his strength with a good plain dinner and good wine; while Carton sat opposite to him at the same table, with his separate bottle of port before him, and his fully half-insolent manner upon him.
The celebrity of Dickens was such that tourists sought out his old haunts in the decades after his death. The American artist Joseph Pennell wrote a colorful account of the Cheese for Harper’s Weekly in 1887:
On my first coming to London, I had fortified myself, not with a course of English history, but by re-reading Pickwick. My first Sunday morning, about one o’clock, I found myself in Chancery Lane outside the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn, in the company of the proverbial solitary policeman and convivial Ye Olde Cheshire Cheesecat. On my asking the policeman where in the world I could get something to eat—as it is well known one must starve in London on Sunday before one and after three—he gave me the inevitable answer, ‘Down to the bottom, first to your left, under the lamp, up the passage, and there you are!’ After he had repeated these mysterious directions two or three times, and had found me hopelessly ignorant of his meaning, he did what I have very seldom known a London policeman to do—a proof of his loneliness; he walked to the end of Chancery Lane with me, and there being no one in Fleet Street, pointed out the sign of the Cheshire Cheese. A push at the door, and I have passed into another world. I was in a narrow hall, at the far end of which was a quaint bar, where, framed in by small panes, were two very pretty, but I cannot say fascinating barmaids—I never could be fascinated by the ordinary English barmaid. Suddenly a waiter with a very short nose came out of another room and screamed up the stairs: ‘Cotherum steak. Boatherum foozlum mash. Fotherum coozlum, botherum steak!’ and then remarked to me: ‘Lunch, sir? Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. What can I get you, sir? Steak, sir; chop, sir; kidney, sir; potatoes, sir, cooked in their jackets, sir? Yes, sir; thank you, sir.’ Then up the stairs he added: ‘Underdone steak one!’ Then to me again: ‘Walk in, sir. Take a seat, sir. Paper, sir? Lloyd’s, sir? Reynolds’, sir? Yes, sir.’
I had begun to look around me. I found I had stumbled on just what I had determined to make a hunt for. I was in one of the greenbaize-curtained boxes into which Mr. Pickwick was always dropping under the guidance of Sam Weller, whose ‘knowledge of London was extensive and peculiar.’ Unless you have a Sam Weller at your elbow you will not very easily find the Cheshire Cheese, the last of the London chop-houses, even though it is in Baedeker. In the opposite corner was, not Mr. Pickwick, but one of those respectable shabby old gentlemen you never see outside of London. The waiter asked him in the same confidential tone, ‘if he would not have a half-bitter! if he would not like to see yesterday’s Times? A most interestin’ article in it, sir, Mr. Price, sir.’ Then Mr. Price’s half-bitter came in a dented old pewter pot, and along with it an exaggerated wine-glass; and Mr. Price held the pewter in the air, and a softly murmuring stream flowed from the one into the other. Beyond the box I was in I saw other hard straight-backed seats, and between them other most beautifully clean, white clothcovered tables, at all of which were three or four rather quiet and sedate, but after their manner sociable, Englishmen, everybody seeming to know everybody else in the place. Everything seemed happy, even to the cat purring on the hearth, and the brass kettle singing on the hob. Perhaps I should except the restless waiter, who, when anyone came in, rushed to the bottom of the stairs and gave his unearthly yell. Soon down the same stairs came the translation of the yell in the shape of the steak I had ordered, and with it the potatoes in their jackets, all on old blue willow-ware plates.
‘Your steak, sir. Yes, sir. Anything else, sir? Napkin, sir? Oh, serviette! Yes, sir. All Americans like them, sir.’
And so I found for the first time that napkins and bread, freely bestowed in decent restaurants at home, are in England looked upon as costly luxuries.
I have returned again and again to the Cheshire Cheese, and have, moreover, tried to induce others to go there with me. For if the place is not haunted, as it is said to be, by the shades of Ben Jonson and Herrick, of Samuel Johnson and Boswell, the waiter is perfectly willing, for a consideration, to point out to you the stains of their wigs on the wall. It is certain that Dickens, Forster, Tom Hood, Wilkie Collins, and many other worthies did frequent it, while Sala periodically puffs it, and a host of other lights have written about it. In my own small way I have endeavoured to lead some modern junior novelists and poets there, to show them how near they could come to some of the great masters whom they apparently worship so thoroughly. But on the only occasion when I succeeded in placing one probably in the seat of Goldsmith or Herrick, he sniffed at the chops and remarked that if Johnson had had a napkin it would have been better for his personal appearance.
I hardly know myself what is the attraction of the place, for you can only get chops and steaks, kidneys and sausages, or on Saturdays a gigantic pudding, to eat your money’s worth of which you must have the appetite of a Gargantua, or, on Shrove Tuesdays, pancakes. If you should happen to want anything else, you would probably get the answer which Mr. Sala says was given to a friend of his who asked (at the Cock) for a hard boiled egg with his salad: ‘A hegg! If Halbert Hedward ‘imself wuz to cum ‘ere he couldn’t ‘ave a hegg.’ Whoever really cares to see the last of the Old London chop-houses, let him, when next in London, look up the sign of YE OLDE CHESHYRE CHEESE.
The literary history of the Cheese continued after the time of Pennell’s writing. In 1890, W.B. Yeats and Ernest Rhys founded the Rhymer’s Club at the Cheese. P.G. Wodehouse dined there in the early twentieth century. He remarked to a friend, in 1927, “Yesterday, I looked in at the Garrick at lunchtime, took one glance of loathing at the mob, and went off to lunch by myself at the Cheshire Cheese.”
Contra Pennell, the Cheese is not the very last of the Old London chop-houses. The George and Vulture in Cornhill, another favorite of Dickens, is still open for business.