Catherine, the wife of Charles Dickens, was herself an author, but of just one book: What Shall we Have for Dinner? Satisfactorily Answered by Numerous Bills of Fare for from Two to Eighteen Persons. As the title indicates, it was a cookery book, in fact a pamphlet containing many suggested menus for meals of varying complexity together with a few recipes. It went through several editions after 1851, under the authorial pseudonym of 'Lady Maria Clutterbuck' with a brief introduction that was, commentators aver, the work of Charles Dickens himself. In this book, Susan Rossi-Wilcox has investigated the life of Catherine Dickens, the domestic arrangements of the Dickens family, the composition of this menu-book and how the various changes in succeeding editions reflect both Catherine's own development and the state of play in Victorian cookery, entertainment and food supply. At the same time, it contains a transcript of the menu-book itself and the appendix of recipes. It would t be sensible to claim the little book changed very much about Victorian cookery, but it serves as a potent marker of what was going on at the time, for example the modes of service, the sorts of dishes cooked, the domestic organisation necessary to maintain a reasonably well-off household. Catherine Dickens herself is a very interesting character and this book has much to offer people seeking to get behind the facade thrown up by Charles Dickens and his biographers (the couple separated in 1858 and Catherine suffered from much negative spin). Susan Rossi-Wilcox paints a sympathetic portrait of a capable and resourceful woman. Dinner for Dickens is fully referenced and illustrated with contemporary photographs, drawn largely from the collections of the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London.
Susan M. Rossi-Wilcox is a Curatorial Associate of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University where she is Administrator for the Glass Flowers Collection.