"You couldn’t manage to get me a glass of brandy-and-water, my dear?" by A. B. Frost, in Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day People and Every-day Life, Pictures from Italy, and American Notes (1877), III. "Characters," Chapter VII: "The Misplaced Attachment of Mr. John Dounce," p. 183. Wood-engraving, 4 ⅛ by 5 ¼ inches (10.5 cm high by 13.3 cm wide), framed. Whereas George Cruikshank in the original anthology merely used the illustration Mr. John Dounce," (1836) to introduce the principal characters, the young lady of the oyster bar and the eponymous character in the short sketch from 1835, the later illustrators have focussed more on subtlety of character and action. Neither Cruikshank nor Frost makes the elderly widower look at all prepossessing; indeed, there is nothing about this corpulent, late middle-aged bourgeois that a young woman (even one who works in an oyster shop) would find particularly attractive, other than his money. The conclusion of the story, then, should come as no surprise. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

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Bibliographical Information

Originally published as "Scenes and Characters No. 5. Love and Oysters" in Bell's Life in London (4 October 1835), this is another one of Dickens's earliest pieces in what would come to appear in the "Characters" section of the second series of Sketches by Boz (1839). The 1876 and 1877 Household Editions of Dickens's Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-Day People contain only a single wood-engraving between them, namely Frost's study of the aging bachelor in the oyster shop.

Passage Illustrated: Close-up of the Eponymous Character

"Can you open me half-a-dozen more, my dear?" inquired Mr. John Dounce.

"I’ll see what I can do for you, sir," replied the young lady in blue, even more bewitchingly than before; and Mr. John Dounce eat [sic] half-a-dozen more of those at eightpence.

"You couldn’t manage to get me a glass of brandy-and-water, my dear, I suppose?" said Mr. John Dounce, when he had finished the oysters: in a tone which clearly implied his supposition that she could.

"I’ll see, sir," said the young lady: and away she ran out of the shop, and down the street, her long auburn ringlets shaking in the wind in the most enchanting manner; and back she came again, tripping over the coal-cellar lids like a whipping-top, with a tumbler of brandy-and-water, which Mr. John Dounce insisted on her taking a share of, as it was regular ladies’ grog — hot, strong, sweet, and plenty of it. [III. "Characters," Chapter VII: "The Misplaced Attachment of Mr. John Dounce," pp. 182-183]

Commentary: Colchester Natives

"[The] Misplaced Attachment of Mr. John Dounce . . ." Originally published as "Scenes and Characters No. 5. Love and Oysters" in Bell's Life in London (October 4, 1835), this sketch describes a steady "old boy" widower and his infatuation for a 25-year-old woman in a blue dress who sells oysters. He becomes ridiculous to his longtime male companions, has his proposal turned down by the young lady, and eventually marries his cook. — Paul Davis, p. 244.

Although the American illustrator had never seen a London oyster bar when he completed this picture in 1876, he had probably seen the original Cruikshank illustration, and would have been familiar with such shops in New York. Although, therefore, he conveys an imperfect notion of the backdrop, Frost does show the oyster knife in the young woman's hand, as well as the vinegar and other adjuncts to such a quick repast. Does Douce's gesture indicate merely that he has consumed enough Colchester Natives, or does it betoken indigestion, or (as the text makes clear) thirst?

Shops of all kinds, including restaurants, appear in Dickens's fiction and journalism, most famously the old curiosity shop in the novel of the same name, although he seems to have been chiefly interested in inns, hotels, public-houses, and bake-shops. Nevertheless, he had a fondness for oysters throughout his life; on his second American tour, for example, Dickens's repast on the night of a public reading would consist solely of champagne and oysters.

The British had been fond of "Colchester Natives" since Roman times, when barrels of oysters from the remote corner of the Empire were highly prized in Rome. When the legions pulled out in 410 A. D., the Britons temporarily abandoned their oyster farms, and oysters disappeared from British recipes until the reign of King Richard the Second. Since eating meat was prohibited by the mediaeval church for up to one-third of the year, oysters became a popular alternative to fish, although the mixing of oysters with such meat dishes as steak-and-kidney pie (using stout and dropping the kidneys), steak, and roasted mutton occurred after the Reformation. Since beef-and-oyster pie was a classic Victorian dish, demand for the shellfish was high in nineteenth-century Britain: "as many as 80 million oysters a year being transported from Whitstable's nutrient-rich waters to London's Billingsgate Market alone" (Ysewijn). Although in Pickwick Papers the aphoristic Sam Weller observes that "Poverty and oysters always seem to go together" (a notion that Dickens would have derived as a child in Rochester and Chatham), undoubtedly, by the time that Dickens (under the pseudonym "Tibbs") wrote this sketch for Bell's Life in London set in a superior "oyster saloon," the native oyster beds were becoming exhausted, and the price of oysters was rising to such an extent that only the prosperous classes could afford to eat them "on the shell" by mid-century. Still a cheap source of protein, six oysters could still be used by poorer Londoners as the basis for the traditional pie with a suet crust, a pound of inferior steak, onions and carrots, and a rich sauce based on a pint of porter or stout.

Those were the days of supper, for at that time a beneficent Legislature had not ordained that, at a certain hour, no matter how soberly we may be enjoying ourselves in a house of public entertainment, we were to be turned into the streets. There were many houses which combined a supper with a dinner business; there were some which only took down their shutters when ordinary hard-working people were going to bed. Among the former were the oyster-shops — Quinn's in the Haymarket; Scott's, facing that broad-awake thoroughfare; a little house (name forgotten) in Ryder Street — not Wilton, who closed at twelve; Godwin's, with the celebrated Charlotte as its attendant Hebe, in the Strand near St. Mary's Church. Godwin's was occasionally patronized by journalists and senators who lived in the Temple precincts: the beaming face of Morgan John O'Connell was frequently to be seen there; and Douglas Jerrold would sometimes look in. Charlotte was supposed to be one of the few who had ever silenced the great wit: he had been asking for some time for a glass of brandy-and-water; and when at length Charlotte placed before him the steaming jorum, she said, "There it is, you troublesome little man; mind you don't fall into it and drown yourself." Jerrold, who was very sensitive to any remarks upon his small and bent figure, collapsed.

Other famous oyster-houses of that day, as they are of this, were Lynn's in Fleet Street, Pimm's in the Poultry, and Sweeting's in Cheapside; but they were all closed at night. Restaurants where the presence of ladies at supper was encouraged rather than objected to were the Café de l'Europe, in the large room at the back (the front room, entered immediately from the street, was reserved for gentlemen, and will be mentioned elsewhere), and Dubourg's, already mentioned, the proprietor of which — a fat elderly Frenchman, his portly presence much girt with gold watch-chain — was a constant attendant at the Opera, and was well known to the roués of the day. [Edmund Yates, "1847-1852"]

The relevant illustrations from the original 1839 and the Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910)

Left: George Cruikshank's original, somewhat cartoonish rendition of Mr. Dounce's evening visit to the new oyster-shop, span class="tcartwork">Mr. John Dounce (8 February 1836). Right: Harry Furniss's theatrical lithograph of the flirtatious widower at the newly-opened oyster-shop, on a magnificent scale, Misplaced Attachment of Mr. John Dounce (1910).


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Last modified 14 April 2019