There are 62 references to cake so far in our 19th- century corpus, ranging from Jane Eyre’s slightly depressing “oaten-cakes” (also found in Shelley’s Frankenstein) to the more lavish offerings of plum-cake, plum-pudding, tea-cake, sponge-cake, and cheese-cake that appear in works by Dickens, Le Fanu and others.
Here are a few of the most famous – although Mary Berry and co might not officially recognise them as cakes! We’ve also included a few recipes, for those of our readers who enjoy adventuous baking…
6. Jane Eyre’s thin Oaten Cakes – Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847)
On arrival at the forbidding Lowood institution, Jane Eyre discovers that the school’s catering is nothing to write home about.
“The tall girls went out and returned presently, each bearing a tray, with portions of something, I knew not what, arranged thereon, and a pitcher of water and mug in the middle of each tray. The portions were handed round; those who liked took a draught of the water, the mug being common to all. When it came to my turn, I drank, for I was thirsty, but did not touch the food, excitement and fatigue rendering me incapable of eating: I now saw, however, that it was a thin oaten cake shared into fragments. […]
Soon after five p.m. we had another meal, consisting of a small mug of coffee, and half-a-slice of brown bread. I devoured my bread and drank my coffee with relish; but I should have been glad of as much more–I was still hungry. Half-an-hour’s recreation succeeded, then study; then the glass of water and the piece of oat-cake, prayers, and bed. Such was my first day at Lowood”.
In Sheridan Le Fanu’s House by the Churchyard (1863), we discover the value of taking all things in moderation:
“Aulus manlius Torquatus, a gentleman of consular rank, died in the act of taking a cheese-cake at dinner.”
With less final consequences…
4. Alice’s magical fruit-cake
Most people are familiar with the rather hallucinogenic effects of certain cakes that make an appearance in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, (1865):
“Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words “EAT ME” were beautifully marked in currants. “Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice, “and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door; so either way I’ll get into the garden, and I don’t care which happens!”
3. The world’s finest plum cake
Bleak House’s Esther Summerson can’t be tempted by a gentleman’s offer of the world’s finest plum cake (Charles Dickens, 1853).
“In this paper,” which was nicely folded, “is a piece of the best plum-cake that can be got for money – sugar on the outside an inch thick, like fat on mutton chops. Here’s a little pie (a gem this is, both for size and quality), made in France. And what do you suppose it’s made of? Livers of fat geese. There’s a pie! Now let’s see you eat ’em.” “Thank you, sir,” I replied; “thank you very much indeed, but I hope you won’t be offended – they are too rich for me.” “Floored again!” said the gentleman, which I didn’t at all understand, and threw them both out of window. He did not speak to me any more until he got out of the coach a little way short of Reading, when he advised me to be a good girl and to be studious, and shook hands with me.”
2. Petrified sponge-cake
Robert Audley is rather put off by the baker’s petrified sponge-cake in M. E Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1863):
“He stopped at the baker’s, who called himself a pastrycook and confectioner, and exhibited some specimens of petrified sponge-cake in glass bottles, and some highly-glazed tarts, covered with green gauze.”
And speaking of mouldy cake, we can’t forget the most famous one of them all…
- A wedding cake to put you off cake, once and for all
Pip doesn’t know quite what to make of Miss Havisham’s showstopper “Rotted-bride cake” decorated with layers of cobwebs and beetles (Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, 1861).
“In her other hand she had a crutch-headed stick on which she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place. “This,” said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, “is where I will be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at me here.” With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch. “What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?” “I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.” “It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!” […] Miss Havisham was taking exercise in the room with the long spread table, leaning on her crutch stick. The room was lighted as of yore, and at the sound of our entrance, she stopped and turned. She was then just abreast of the rotted bride-cake.“
Miss Havisham’s Bride Cake Illustration: “It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine” John McLenan 1860 from Harper’s Weekly 5 Jan 1861. Scanned Image and caption by Philip V. Allingham. This and more great images of Havisham can be found on The Victorian web page.