By Bonnie Shishko
Midway through Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), Esther Summerson relinquishes her beloved role as adopted housekeeper and assumes another: sick nurse. In a tense scene that’s painfully relevant in this era of COVID, Esther rushes to isolate herself and Charley, a servant who has contracted smallpox. Quickly locking her bedroom door, Esther quarantines with Charley and nurses her around the clock. The two women mark Charley’s recovery by drinking tea. “It was a great evening,” Esther tells us, “when Charley and I at last took tea together.”
But it is the night of the celebratory tea that Esther realizes she and Charley have shared more than a room and a food ritual. Esther has contracted Charley’s smallpox. In a role reversal foreshadowed by the chapter’s ambiguous title, “Nurse and Patient,” Esther becomes the patient and Charley, at thirteen years old, the nurse.
Although told from Esther’s perspective, the chapter “Nurse and Patient” makes one thing clear: for many Victorian women, illness and disease was not a private but a collective experience. “If I am to be ill,” Esther tells Charley, “my great trust, humanly speaking, is in you” (433). Esther’s assumption that she and Charley—both young, inexperienced, and of different social classes—are capable of and responsible for nursing each other through a grave disease exemplifies what Talia Schaffer calls the “reciprocal” and communal nature of Victorian caregiving. For much of the nineteenth century, “nursing occurs within the home,” Schaffer writes. And so, “in Victorian fiction, care really does take a village” (198; 193).
While the realist novel might have fictionalized collective care through food, another genre offered explicit instructions in how to provide such care: “invalid cookbooks,” or cookery books intended to nourish the ill and disabled. Such cookbooks were not groundbreaking; invalid recipes appeared in manuscripts and print domestic manuals since the Renaissance (Notaker 201). Yet, Victorian discoveries in nutrition science and the ensuing effort to reform domestic cookery prompted a plethora of publications geared to help women prepare nutritionally-appropriate meals for the sick (Adelman 189; 194; 203).
For all their claims to modernization, however, a glance across the dishes in mid-Victorian invalid menus reveals a noticeable uniformity with cookbooks past—and with each other (Adelman 193-4). In her bestselling 1859 Book of Household Management, for example, Isabella Beeton includes a chapter on “Invalid Cookery,” with dishes that echo Hannah Glasse’s 1747 The Art of Cookery: mutton broth, barley water, gruel. Other writers boosted this trend. Caregivers who wished to spice up Beeton’s recipe for “Toast Sandwiches”—a slice of toast layered between two buttered and salted slices of bread—need look no further than J.W. Walsh’s recipe for “Toast Sandwiches for Invalids” from The English Cookery Book (1859). In a twist on the bland diet traditionally assigned to the ill, Walsh’s recipe permits a dab of mustard (316).
On the one hand, the repetition of recipes across Victorian invalid cookbooks testifies to received beliefs around invalid diets. As Juliana Adelman argues, such texts established a “canon of foods” for the ill (193). But Victorian writers were not merely standardizing but collecting; they self-consciously harnessed the recipe’s status as a form built for exchange in order to construct a discursive care collective for working- and middle-class women who, like Esther and Charley, found themselves performing the role of nurse. What I especially want to emphasize is the centrality of the recipe as a narrative form to this enterprise. Janet Floyd and Laurel Foster explain that “[t]he root of the word recipe,” the Latin imperative recipere, or “take,” signals the restlessness of the form; its need to “exist in a perpetual state of exchange” (6). “Meaning both to give and to receive,” they write, recipes function as what Luce Giard calls ‘multiplications of borrowing’” (6). Recipes are mobile; they are traversable; they cross borders of time and space. With each “borrowing,” the “care community,” to borrow Schaffer’s term, multiplies.
To see the invalid recipe in action as an exchanged object, we might turn again to tea; this time, to the popular invalid dish “beef tea.” Between Beeton and Walsh, we find six recipes for beef tea, including plain, “baked,” and one “quickly made.” The recipe I want us to notice, however, belongs to a third writer: the celebrated French chef, Alexis Soyer. Beeton borrowed Soyer’s previously published “Savoury Beef Tea” for the chapter. Visually demarcated by the parentheticals “Soyer’s Recipe,” yet tucked between her own beef tea recipes, Beeton’s recirculation of Soyer’s instructions makes visible—and replicable—another option to administer care. In Walsh’s cookbook, the network of exchange materializes in the very subtitle, undergirding the work’s structure itself: “Receipts Collected by a Committee of Ladies.” Although “compiled” by women “at the head of well-conducted establishments,” Walsh spotlights their diversity and dailiness. “Many come from their own family scrap-books,” he boasts, and are “In Daily Use By Private Families” (iii; Title Page).
Invalid recipes are a form of recollection; a food memory. As formal objects with histories of exchange from “family scrap-books” to the print marketplace to sickrooms across Britain, invalid recipes like Walsh’s collect and publicly record private sickroom experiences of both eating and feeding. As we track the kinetic energy of the recipe, its urge for movement across space and time, a vast collective record of care, illness, and recovery comes into view. Perhaps more than any other recipe type, invalid recipes thus occupy the border of public and private memory. In his study of food and its relationship to memory, David Sutton argues for food’s ability to blend “social” and “individual” memory. “In producing, exchanging and consuming food” he explains, “we are continuously criss-crossing between the ‘public’ and the ‘intimate,’ individual bodies and collective institutions” (160).
Perhaps this is why Esther narrates her personal recovery from smallpox through a shared food memory. “How well I remember the pleasant afternoon when I was raised in bed with pillows for the first time, to enjoy a great tea-drinking with Charley!” (481). Both the communal act of drinking tea and the recollection of doing so carry healing for Esther. Yet this alimentary care is delivered not by Charley alone, but relies on a third woman: Esther’s beloved friend Ada, who prepares a tea-table for the event. Although banned from the sickroom per Esther’s strict infection protocol, it is the tea-table’s traversability that I want to call attention to, particularly its ability to move between and bind together three women of different social classes isolated in separate spaces of their home. For “nurse and patient”—and for their friend, relegated downstairs and off the page—the “great tea-drinking,” like the invalid recipe, connects the nodes in the care network and memorializes its collective labor.
Adelman, Juliana. “Invalid Cookery, Nursing and Domestic Medicine in Ireland, c. 1900,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 73, no. 2 (2018): 188-204.
Beeton, Isabella. Book of Household Management. London: S.O. Beeton, 1861.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House, edited by Jennifer Mooney. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.
Floyd, Janet and Forster, Laurel. “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts.” The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions, edited by Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. 1-11.
Notaker, Henry. A History of Cookbooks: from Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.
Schaffer, Talia. “Disabling Marriage: Communities of Care in Our Mutual Friend.” Replotting Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, edited by Jill Galvan and Elsie Michie. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018. 192-210.
Sutton, David. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 1 (2008): 157-180.
Walsh, J.T. The English Cookery Book. London: G. Routledge and Co, 1859.
Dr. Bonnie Shishko is Assistant Professor of English at Queens University of Charlotte. Her research and teaching focus on the history of women’s domestic writing, especially the Victorian cookbook and the contemporary food novel. Her work on the recipe and its transformation into a mode of art criticism in the late-Victorian era is forthcoming in the edited collection Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays (Edinburgh University Press, Spring 2021). She has also explored the connection between Victorian recipes and the national trend of baking bread during Covid-19. Her essay can be read here.