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picture of the book, The Illustrated Letters of Richard Doyle to His Father, 1842-1843

As you know, one of my favorite 19-th century illustrators & PUNCH-men is Richard Doyle, who joined the staff of the magazine when he was just 19 years old, and who designed the iconic cover of PUNCH just a few months later. I still have very fond memories of that magical day I spent in the Victoria & Albert Museum, looking through Doyle’s sketchbooks. (YES!!!! I touched the original sketchbooks! The sketchbooks Doyle himself had touched!)

However, there is one kind of primary source related to Richard Doyle that has remained unpublished for many years and of which you can catch only occasional glimpses in books about Doyle: the illustrated letters he sent to his father in the early 1840s. These were part of the weekly challenge John Doyle set for his sons: in those letters they were to describe what they had seen and done that week. Doyle senior encouraged them to go to the theatre and attend other important cultural and political events in London.

A couple of weeks ago, I found out – quite by accident! – that for the first time ever there’s a scholarly edition of Richard Doyle’s illustrated letters (at this point, imagine me melting into a puddle of delight). So of course, I had to have that book. And, OH MY GOSH, those letters, they are wonderful! I haven’t yet had time to really delve into it, but even just browsing through it is a delight.

Doyle presents to the reader street scenes of London and also takes us into the Doyle home, where he shows us his brothers and himself hard at work at the next painting for their private Sunday exhibition. There are fantasy scenes with fairies and, of course, there plenty of little knights too – one of Doyle’s most favorite theme in those years and one that should later make his illustrations favorites with the PUNCH readership.

Picture of a page from The Illustrated Letters of Richard Doyle to His Father

The letters are whimsical and charming. Take the one from 18 September 1842, which opens with,

My Dear Papa,

The Royal game of Golf (I am not sure that I have spelt it rightly, but it is to be hoped I have), as played upon Blackheath every Saturday by a portion of the sporting residents of the neighbourhood, presents to the unsophisticated eye as remarkable an aspect as one could reasonably expect to witness. Next to the brute force of man, a hurling stick and a ball are the chief agents in this delicious game.

That Demon Punch, illustration from Doyle's letter from 17 December 1843

By December 1843, Richard Doyle was working for PUNCH and the new job is taking up much of this time – to the extent that he fears he won’t be able to finish the “Christmas things” promised to friends and family.  “On the next page,” he writes to his father on 17 December in the last letter of the collection,

you will find a representation of your son, precisely as he appeared at the moment when he gave up all hope, on Monday last, half past nine o’ clock p.m. […] The demon Punch perched upon the table, in exultation, points to the “Procession,” his “Christmas Piece.” Harlequin &c, as indicative of Christmas, weep over the little quantity of yours, a crowd of little urchins, in the foreground, by referring to the productions of former years, prove what can be done, and others in the back are plainly showing that it was not for want of paper.

As it turned out, Doyle would always find it difficult to meet deadlines (*cough* a little bit like myself…) – and it was never for want of paper!

In short, my new research book is a true delight, and I shall peruse it with much joy.

Having finally finished the clean-up from Thanksgiving (the wedding crystal goblets I have to wash by hand tend to decorate the kitchen counter for days), I am now looking ahead to the next holidays, and more meals to be planned in celebration. Special occasions and special food always go together. Do you have a traditional holiday food you make or fondly remember? For Christians, this past Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent, the season leading up to Christmas, and in some parts of England, is also known as “stir-up day” –the day you are supposed to stir-up the batter for your Christmas cake or pudding so it will have enough time to age properly. (The day can also be the last Sunday before the start of Advent.) There’s a double meaning to the name, as one of the old texts used by the church for the start of Advent begins “Stir up , we beseech thee O Lord” and one site claims “this activity of stirring-up the ingredients symbolizes our hearts that must be stirred in preparation for Christ’s birth.” Christmas cakes (aka fruitcakes) have a pedigree as long as the technique of using rum or brandy to preserve food. “Plum Pudding” was also around long before the Victorians popularized it as “Christmas pudding”. Either one could include meat with the dried fruit in their early forms, but one is baked and the other was boiled –steamed in later times.

For someone who’s not a great cook, maybe it’s ironic that I’ve always been interested in period food, but it comes honestly from my interest in the daily life of other times. The Regency isn’t my only pet period –I’m a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and indulge in medieval interests, too. I collect cookbooks on period food, and recently added Dinner with Tom Jones: Eighteenth Century Cookery Adapted for the Modern Kitchen, by Lorna Sass (1977, the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Sass also wrote To the King’s Taste (Richard II) and To the Queen’s Taste (Elizabeth I).

Cover-Dinner with Tom Jones.jpgI can’t believe I found this treasure in my church yard sale!! I recommend it as a research gold-mine; it has notes about menus, how dishes should be arranged on the table, and all sorts of extra goodies besides the recipes, and while it covers a period slightly earlier than our beloved Regency, back then things did not change as rapidly as they do now. Casting about for what to feed our characters, a ragoo of asparagus or heavens, yes, a chocolate tart(!) might be just the thing we need to serve them. And the book is illustrated with delightful sketches of county life by Thomas Rowlandson (behaving properly for a change).

Cover-Dinner with Mr DarcyOn my Christmas list is another cookbook just released last month which should also be of great interest to us all —Dinner with Mr Darcy by Pen Vogler, a new addition to the existing canon related to food in Jane Austen’s books and life. Besides recipes inspired by Jane’s novels and letters, it also promises notes about table arrangements, kitchens and gardens, changing mealtimes, and servants and service, etc.

Both of these books use Hannah Glasse’s first cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), as a chief source. A reviewer of Vogler’s book ( says this was “one of the first commercial cookbooks to capture the public imagination and was used by middle-class families like the Austens well into the 19th century.” Does food history interest you? Do you care about what our story characters eat? (The book I’m editing now for reissue, The Captain’s Dilemma, has a running joke about the family’s inventive but not very good cook.) What are some of your favorite resources?

I wish you all very happy holidays and some memorable meals with friends and family, whatever you celebrate!

P&P Dinner Scene

Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) distracts Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) from her meal in the 2005 ‘Pride and Prejudice’ -Photo Credit: Rex Features/Everett Collection

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