Fortnum & Mason to the Rescue: Dickens's Shopping Habits by Lucy Whitehead
Charles Dickens and the food emporium Fortnum & Mason are both iconic London institutions, but they might seem a surprising pairing. The luxurious gleaming plenty associated with the London store of Fortnum & Mason seems a far cry from the dank winding backstreets associated with the London of Dickens’s novels. Yet items held in the Museum’s collection show that Fortnum & Mason had a significant presence for Dickens both emotionally and imaginatively.
I discovered the unexpected connection while on a placement at the Museum in summer 2018, researching towards the current exhibition ‘Food Glorious Food: Dinner with Dickens’, curated by food historian Pen Vogler. Account books held by the Museum (AA26–AA29) helped us to map out the suppliers that Dickens used both to entertain his dinner guests and to feed his growing family. While many of the companies listed evoked a vanished network of Victorian eating, drinking and sociability, I was surprised to see one still well-known name cropping up in the account book for 1863–65: Fortnum & Co.
A page from Dickens’s account book shows a payment of £37.18.11 to Fortnum & Co. on 23 March 1865
Image: Charles Dickens Museum Collection
Letters held by the Museum helped us to trace the connection back further, showing the complicated meanings that Fortnum & Mason must have had for Dickens. In a letter of 25 June 1851 (A103), he appealed to his old friend Thomas Beard:
"I write to you from Macready's where we have been staying a few days, to enquire if you can make next Tuesday the 1st. July a holiday?—For this reason. I have promised Charley that I will appear at 11 that morning at Slough, armed with a hamper from Fortnum and Mason's, and take him and three other young Etonian Shavers up the river. He "knows a bank" where we can dine; and if you can come, you and I will console ourselves for our antiquity, after dinner, with a trifle of tobacco and champagne in the starn of the wessel."
Dickens’s letter to Thomas Beard invites him to share a holiday picnic from a Fortnum & Mason hamper
Image: Charles Dickens Museum Collection
The exhibition ‘Dinner with Dickens’ explores the emotional meanings of food in Dickens’s life and works: a source of shared pleasure and comfort, but also a reminder of the deprivation, fear, and humiliation of his financially unstable childhood. In a previous blog post, Katie Bell wrote about a much earlier letter to Thomas Beard held by the Museum. In this letter of 1834, Dickens wrote to his friend about the ‘very distressing subject’ of his father’s latest arrest for debt, saying that he wanted Beard to ‘know the worst’. Nearly twenty years later, both friends must have been conscious of the divide between the youth of Dickens’s oldest son Charley – educated at Eton, and dining off Fortnum & Mason hampers – and Dickens’s own anxious early years. The chance to treat his son, and to feed him well, was clearly a source of happiness to Dickens. But the shared pleasure must also have been a reminder of the things about his past that he felt unable to tell his children.
Other references to Fortnum & Mason, recorded in the Pilgrim Collected Edition of Dickens’s letters, are more uncomplicatedly light-hearted. Dickens enjoys playing about with scale, so that the famous hampers seem to grow and shrink in his letters like a precursor to Alice in Wonderland. In a letter to Mark Lemon of 21 May 1849, he writes that ‘Fortnum and Mason have undertaken the Hamper—a very neat little collation’. However, in a letter of 11 July 1851 he describes himself ‘accompanied by two immense hampers from Fortnum and Mason's’.
The appeal that Fortnum & Mason evidently had to Dickens’s imagination, and to his sense of humour, is clearest in an article called ‘Epsom’ that he wrote with W. H. Wills for his journal Household Words, published on 7 June 1851. Dickens describes the crowd at Derby Day standing on their Fortnum & Mason hampers to view the races, and claims:
"If I were on the turf, and had a horse to enter for the Derby, I would call that horse Fortnum and Mason, convinced that with that name he would beat the field. Public opinion would bring him in somehow. Look where I will—in some connexion with the carriages—made fast upon the top, or occupying the box, or tied up behind, or dangling below, or peeping out of window—I see Fortnum and Mason. And now, Heavens! all the hampers fly wide open, and the green Downs burst into a blossom of lobster-salad!"
A cartoon in Punch from 1865 shows that the popular association between Derby Day and Fortnum & Mason was a lingering one, as a vehicle for a Derby race is imagined with Fortnum & Mason hampers strapped underneath it.
Fortnum & Mason hampers in a Punch cartoon from 1865
Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University
Dickens’s preoccupation with Fortnum & Mason may have reflected the store’s prominence in Victorian social life. But his letters suggest that he also felt an attachment to the company – that it stood in his mind in some way for reliability and reassurance. In a letter to Thomas Beard of 22 June 1852, inviting Beard to repeat the holiday party of a year ago, Dickens coaxes: ‘Say yes, and […] Fortnum and Mason shall come to the rescue’. In a letter of 18 May 1850, making plans to attend the Derby, Dickens tells John Leech firmly: ‘As to a hamper from Fortnum & Mason's, that I consider indispensable.’ And in a letter to his wife Catherine of 5 May 1856, ‘distracted with doubts and torn by remorse’ at having impulsively invited a large number of guests over at short notice, Dickens consoles himself (and Catherine) with the thought that he can feed them on ‘cold viands from Fortnum and Mason’s’.
In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Dinner with Dickens, Pen Vogler reflects on the link between food and emotion in Dickens’s life and works. She argues that ‘[h]is autobiographical novel David Copperfield shows not just the desperation of having an empty belly, but also the ache for the consolation and security of being nourished by a loving parent’. The Museum’s collection shows that Fortnum & Mason supplied Dickens, his family and guests with food for over a decade. Perhaps it’s not surprising therefore that Dickens seems to have associated the company with the consolation and security that he sometimes lacked elsewhere.
Lucy Whitehead is currently completing a PhD at Cardiff University on the literary and cultural history of Dickens biographies 1870–present. She has worked on the Dickens collections at the Huntington Library in California, and at the Charles Dickens Museum. In 2018 she assisted with research and curation for the Museum’s current exhibition ‘Food Glorious Food: Dinner with Dickens’. You can find her on Twitter @LucyAbroad.
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