The Pitfalls of First-Time Dinner Parties
Charles Dickens’s picturesque story of the life of David Copperfield is a classic tale. When Copperfield marries his childlike bride, Dora, they set up housekeeping. Dora has few domestic skills and very little common sense, however. One of their first attempts at housekeeping was to invite David’s good friend Tommy Traddles to dinner. Dickens’s description of the ensuing scene is one of the most amusing dining scenes in English literature. Copperfield starts to recount the evening: “I could not have wished for a prettier little wife at the opposite end of the table,” but the table, and the entire room, are hopelessly cramped and cluttered. Their dog, Jip, is another distraction:
I could have wished ... that Jip had never been encouraged to walk about the table-cloth during dinner. I began to think there was something disorderly in his being there at all, even if he had not been in the habit of putting his foot in the salt or the melted-butter. On this occasion he seemed to think he was introduced expressly to keep Traddles at bay; and he barked at my old friend, and made short runs at his plate ...
All of this is quite hilarious and is captured in the illustration. Another problem in the ill-fated meal is that Copperfield fails in his attempt to carve the “boiled leg of mutton.” Carving was most often reserved for the master of the house or for distinguished guests. All gentlemen were expected to know the exact way to carve any dish before them. Etiquette books at that time were full of carving instructions for every type of fowl or animal. As he struggles with the joint of meat, Copperfield asks Dora about another dish at the table. Dora had innocently purchased a little barrel of oysters. In the mid-19th century, oyster-knives, and all other appropriate flatware, were laid on all of the best tables to suit a host's and hostess' menu. Alas, the Copperfields “had no oyster-knives—and couldn’t have used them if we had; so we looked at the oysters and ate the mutton.”
The Personal History of David Copperfield was originally published in London in serial parts in 1849-50.