Paul Johnson

The plum pudding trick

A magical Christmas party, starring Charles Dickens

Text settings

Which was the best Christmas party ever? Perhaps it took place on Boxing Day, Tuesday 26 December 1843, at the home of Nina Macready, wife of the famous actor. It was her birthday, but her husband was away on tour, and to cheer herself up she decided to give a children’s party, but invited a lot of grown-ups too. One of them was Jane Carlyle. Her grumpy husband, battling with his book on Cromwell, refused to go. She was feeling dyspeptic, having been obliged, for the first time, to stuff a turkey. Feeling horrible on the morning of Boxing Day, Jane was about to send an apology when a note arrived from a distraught Mrs Macready, imploring her not to ‘disappoint my poor little daughter’. So she dressed up, and ordered a fly, and was given a characteristic parting accolade by her grinning husband, ‘My dear, I think I never saw you look so bilious. Your face is green and your eyes all bloodshot!’

Was it surprising, asked Jane in a letter to her niece Jeannie. ‘I was very ill. Had been off my sleep for a week and felt as if this might almost finish me.’ But, she added, ‘little does one know in this world what will finish them or what will set them up again?’ She thought not even ‘a long course of mercury would have acted so beneficially on my liver as this party, which I had gone to with a sacred shudder! It turned out to be the very most agreeable party that ever I was at in London.’

Star of the party was Charles Dickens. He was, as he put it, ‘mad with excitement’. His A Christmas Carol had appeared on 19 December, and by Christmas Eve had sold 6,000 copies. Carlyle was so delighted by the ending that he went out and bought a turkey, just like Scrooge, for the first time. This was the bird Jane had been obliged to stuff. Dickens had bought what he called ‘a conjuring apparatus’, which included (he wrote in a letter to his philanthropist friend Miss Burdett-Coutts) ‘some of the best tricks of Doëbler’, a leading professional magician. Jane Carlyle was impressed: ‘Only think of that excellent Dickens, playing the conjuror for one whole hour — the best conjuror I ever saw — and I have paid money to see several — and Forster [his future biographer] acting as his servant.’ She said Dickens and Forster ‘exerted themselves till the perspiration was pouring down and they seemed drunk with their efforts!’

The culmination of this entertainment was ‘the plum pudding trick’. According to Jane, ‘it was made out of raw flour, raw eggs — all the usual ingredients — boiled in a gentleman’s hat — and tumbled out reeking — all in a minute before the eyes of the astonished children, and astonishing grown people!’ Dickens also changed ladies’ pocket-handkerchiefs into sweets, and a box full of bran into a box ‘full of a live guinea-pig’. The skill he showed, said Jane, ‘would enable him to make a handsome subsistence, let the bookseller trade go as it pleases!’ The pudding trick sounds a messy business, but Dickens boasted to Miss Burdett-Coutts, ‘It made me more popular than ever I have been in my life.’

Elizabeth Reid, one of those Victorian ladies who was always making moral points to children, annoyed Jane by taking the miraculous pudding as an opportunity to preach to one of Dickens’s small girls. This infant ‘about the size of a quartern loaf’ was sitting ‘gazing in awestruck delight’ at the pudding when Mrs Reid, ‘leaning tenderly over her (as benevolent gentlewomen understand how to lean over youth) said in a soft voice professedly for its ear, but loud enough for mine and everyone else’s within three yards’ distance — “Would not you like that there was such a nice pudding as that in every house in London tonight? I am sure I would!”’ Jane’s comment: ‘The shrinking uncomprehending look which the little blousy face cast up to her was inimitable — a whole page of protest against twaddle!’

Then came country dances. ‘You would have thought,’ Dickens wrote to Cornelius Felton, Professor of Greek at Harvard, ‘I was a country gentleman of independent property, residing on a tip-top farm, with the wind blowing straight in my face every day.’ Among the dancers was William Jerdan, bankrupt proprietor of the Literary Gazette, who had escaped from the Queen’s Bench Prison for the occasion, and what Jane described as ‘the gigantic Thackeray’, both of them ‘capering like maenades!’ She added: ‘Dickens did all but go down on his knees to make me waltz with him!’ She declined to ‘attempt the impossible’, and instead talked ‘the maddest nonsense’ to him and Daniel Maclise, the painter.

However, after supper, ‘madder than ever with the pulling of crackers, the drinking of champagne and the making of speeches’, she was seized by John Forster round the waist and made to dance, ‘like a person in the treadmill who must move forward or be crushed to death!’ She said she cried out: ‘Oh, for the love of heaven let me go! You are going to dash my brains out against the folding doors!’ To which Forster replied: ‘Your brains! Who cares about your brains? Let them go!’ In fact, said Jane, ‘the thing was rising into something not unlike the Rape of the Sabines!’ — adding, ‘Mrs Reid was happily gone by this point.’ Then somebody looked at her watch and said: ‘“Twelve o’clock!” Whereupon we all rushed to the cloakroom.’ This was a children’s party, mind! Jane concluded her account: ‘Dickens took home Thackeray and Forster with him, and his wife, to finish the night THERE! And a royal night they would have of it I fancy! Ending perhaps with a visit to the Watch-house!’

Summing up the occasion, Jane Carlyle was reminded of Robert Burns’s remark in ‘The Jolly Beggars’ that the pleasantest company are the blackguards — ‘that is, those who have just a sufficient dash of blackguardism in them to make them snap their fingers at ceremony and all that sort of thing. I question if there was as much witty speech uttered in all the aristocratic conventional drawing rooms throughout London that night as among us little knot of blackguardist literary people who felt themselves above all rules, and independent of the universe! Well, and the result? Why, the result my dear was, that I went to bed on my return and — slept like a top!’

Who said the Victorians didn’t know how to enjoy themselves? And record it in their letters, too, which has enabled me to reconstruct their party. But then they were lucky folks. Who would go to a children’s party now and expect to find Dickens doing the conjuring, and Jane Carlyle and Forster waltzing, and Maclise sketching events in a corner? And Thackeray laughing his head off and wondering how he could make it into a piece for Punch? But things were humming in 1843. Brunel’s Thames Tunnel had just opened, Faraday was giving the Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution, Ruskin had started to publish Modern Painters, Wagner had put on his Flying Dutchman, Mendelssohn was writing his violin concerto and Dumas The Three Musketeers. Not so long ago, either: the Economist and the News of the World had both just published their first issues, and Liddell & Scott their Greek Lexicon — the same that I used at school! But the trouble with reading about the past is that it makes you want to live in it and have fun, and exchange it for our own dreary present. ‘Good evening Mr Scrooge, Sir! And a happy Christmas to you!’ ‘Bah! Humbug !’