Home Baked: Dickens's English Muffins and Corporate Characters
Keywords:Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, Nicholas Nickleby, literature, economics, food
AbstractNear the start of Charles Dickens’s 1838 novel Nicholas Nickleby, the cruel and conniving Ralph Nickleby speculates on a new monopoly, the “United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.” The actual motivation for the company is quick and steep profit: “Capital, five million, in five hundred thousand shares of ten pounds each,” as Nickleby’s accomplice Mr. Bonney explains, and once the shares are at a premium, “you know what to do with them as well as any man alive, and how to back quietly out at the same time” (25). In order to obtain Parliamentary support and attract shareholders, Nickleby and his retinue rely on the comforting connotations of muffins themselves: “Why the very name will get the shares up to a premium in ten days,” as Bonney says (25). This company, argues accomplice Sir Matthew Pupker, is vital to “the wealth, the happiness, the comfort, the liberty, the very existence of a free and great people”—in other words, muffins form the cornerstone of everything great about Britain, and this greatness must be maintained through corporate regulation (28). To validate the company, Nickleby and co. describe the present degeneracy of the muffin industry: the “whole Muffin system,” according to Mr. Bonney, is “alike prejudicial to the health and morals of the people, and subversive to the best interests of a great commercial and mercantile community” (28). Bonney goes on to claim that, in its present manifestation, the muffin industry is an “inhuman and barbarous system” (29). The United Metropolitan would reform the industry, outlawing all private muffin selling. Ostensibly in the name of better working conditions for the muffin sellers, the plan’s true intent is, of course, to serve as a cash cow for its creators. This early scene is designed to establish Ralph Nickleby’s profiteering character: in the space of a few pages, we learn that Nicholas’s uncle is a ruthless investor, utterly without regard for the lower social orders he exploits to turn a profit. I will argue, however, that this scene also uses the muffin to illustrate the cultural significance of food for nineteenth-century British cultural identity at large. Along with Dombey and Son (1848), Nicholas Nickleby establishes a connection between food and the business corporation that is deliberate, pronounced, and often overlooked. While the muffin is a literal baked good in Nicholas Nickleby, it is at first glance more metaphoric and fleeting in Dombey and Son, where Dombey’s son Paul is described as being like a muffin and is later consumed, much like that baked good. Yet in both novels, the muffin may be read to figuratively represent a cosy Britishness under siege—a homely national character now suddenly subjected to a new and avaricious corporate consumption. Food can illuminate the economic and cultural dynamics of a society; as one example of food in Dickens’s works, the muffins in Nicholas Nickleby and Dombey and Son afford us a new way of examining Dickens’s representation of these dynamics in Victorian Britain. In both novels, Dickens employs food to warn us of the demise of individual character through incorporation.