Coffee Is the Secret to Charles Dickens' Fiction
Mrs. Jellyby, sitting in quite a nest of waste paper, drank coffee all the evening and dictated at intervals to her eldest daughter…and gave utterance to some beautiful sentiments." Charles Dickens wrote those words halfway through one of the most prominent and prolific literary careers the English language has ever seen—one, no doubt, invigorated by the selfsame brew that kept Mrs. Jellyby’s mind turning out “beautiful sentiments” throughout the night. From the early-morning cups that sustained his strenuous writing schedule, to the London coffee shops he frequented during his afternoon walks, we know that Dickens relied on coffee as one of the tonics that made him “the personification of energy,” as one family member recalled. But few realize just how integral coffee was in shaping Dickens’ fertile imagination—an influence born from one pivotal moment in his childhood.
With financial troubles plaguing his family, the twelve-year-old Charles was sent to work at a boot-polish factory in London. Whatever small breaks and meager pocket money the job afforded, Dickens usually spent it indulging in a few quiet moments at local coffee shops where he, like his autobiographical character, David Copperfield, “could settle down into a state of equable low spirits, and resign myself to coffee.”
It was while sipping one of these consolatory cups that young Dickens found himself gazing at “an oval glass plate” in the shop window etched with a wonderfully-strange word that sent a “shock” through his blood. The word was Moor-Eeffoc. It looked and sounded like something straight out of fairyland, right there in the center of cold, bleak, industrial London. Though by the time Dickens realized that Moor-Eeffoc was only the backward spelling of Coffee Room, viewed from the inside of the glass, the magic had already taken root.
“That wild word” would go on to become Dickens’ literary motto, explains biographer G.K. Chesterton, reading a great deal into the word and what it eventually inspired:
It was this precise knack of Dickens, namely for viewing life from a different angle and finding it full of the happiness and horrors of fairyland, that was so instrumental to his literary success and continued popularity. Even modern fairy-tale writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien drew on this uncanny coffee-shop experience. In On Fairy Stories Tolkien writes:
Such an auspicious legacy would hardly surprise Dickens who knew, from his own unhappy childhood, that fairy tales and imagination are “a matter of grave importance,” especially “in an utilitarian age.”
Indeed, though based in reality, most of Dickens’ characters (usually exaggerated and larger-than-life) would be equally at home in any collection of magical tales. Likewise, his ingenious and charming use of names and invention of words, such as bumbledom, wiglomeration, and comfoozled, would make even J.K. Rowling’s pen quiver. And who would have known it all began like a real-life fairy tale itself: with a small, frightened boy in a dark corner grasping a steaming black potion. Whether you call it coffee or eeffoc, we’re certainly grateful Charles Dickens’ gave it a taste and lit up literature forever.
Bryan Kozlowski is the author of What the Dickens?! - Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them. A member of the Dickens Fellowship, he's written on Charles Dickens' life and legacy for Slate, Country Life magazine, and Anglotopia.