A Literary History of Chocolate: Part 1

Last week, we took part in the Late Summer Lecture Series run by the English Department of Durham University. Here is the first instalment of our sumptuous lecture, which traced the history of chocolate in world literature from the eighteenth century to the present day.


The consumption of chocolate has a history stretching back three millennia. However – as it is impossible to cover such an expanse of time on this blog – we will give an unashamedly personal selection of chocolatey moments in the work of some of our favourite authors. We have woven these texts together in a narrative which begins with chocolate as the drink of the wealthy and fashionable upper-classes, and ends with the democratisation of the cocoa bean in the silver-foil wrapped bars we are familiar with today.

‘To begin at the beginning’, as Dylan Thomas wrote. Originating in the hot and humid climate of Central America, the cocoa bean was brought to Europe during the sixteenth century by Spanish explorers such as Cortes. And it is likely that it first arrived in England not through trade, but as plunder. It took the English a while to understand the high value of these strange, bitter beans: at least one Elizabethan adventurer destroyed the cocoa beans he discovered on a captured vessel. However, before long the English learned from the Spanish to mix cocoa with water, sugar, eggs, and milk, and drink hot.

This early form of hot chocolate was initially believed to have medicinal properties; and because patients came to like the taste of their medicine, it soon became popular as a social drink and was sold in the controversial, yet highly fashionable, coffee-houses of the day. As it was originally in Central America, in England chocolate was a drink for the wealthy, idle elite.

But not everyone was in favour of this strange, new drink. The British writer Isaac D’Israeli has this to say about the history of chocolate after it made its debut in Europe:

The Spaniards liking its [chocolate’s] nourishment, improved it into a richer compound, with sugar, vanilla, and other aromatics. The immoderate use of chocolate, in the seventeenth century, was considered as so violent an inflamer of the passions, that Joan. Fran. Rauch published a treatise against it, and enforced the necessity of forbidding the monks to drink it. […] We had chocolate-houses in London long after coffee-houses; they seemed to have associated something more elegant and refined in their new term when that other had become common. Roger North thus inveighs against them: “The use of coffee-houses seems much improved by a new invention, called chocolate-houses, for the benefit of rooks and cullies of quality, where gaming is added to all the rest, and the summons of
W——— seldom fails; as if the devil had erected a new University, and those were the colleges of its professors, as well as his schools of discipline.”

Like tea and coffee, on its arrival in England in the seventeenth century chocolate was quickly labelled as a dangerous stimulant and associated with poor morality. It was also considered to be an aphrodisiac and was, therefore, a risky drink for women who cared to keep their reputations.

The combination of the consumption of inflammatory and stimulating drinks (tea, coffee and chocolate) and the creation of social meeting places in coffee-houses was too much for King Charles II. He suspected coffee and chocolate houses as potential hot-beds of sedition and so tried to have them outlawed. (I suspect Charles II would be horrified if he visited the coffee-shop lined streets of modern-day Durham.) There might have been some truth in his fears; certainly, the Cocoa-tree Chocolate-house in London was a meeting place for Jacobites at the beginning of the 18th century.

Dramatists of the Restoration Period could not resist the temptation to satirise the chocolate-house. In a play entitled The Way of the World, first performed in 1700, William Congreve presents a chocolate-house as a place not of political, but of amorous intrigue, insatiable gossip, and gambling. One audience member of the play’s first production – a Lady Marow – complained that ‘Congreve’s new play doth not answer expectation, there being no plot but many witty things to ridicule the Chocolate House’. 

Such criticism is extremely harsh, and the play certainly contains many more interesting elements which Lady Marow did not seem to pick up on. For example, Congreve expertly depicts the way in which the heroine – Millamant – manoeuvres herself into a position of power within the marriage market. In the fourth act, she and her lover (Mirabell) lay down certain provisos to their marriage. Here is the conclusion of the contract (Mirabell is addressing Millamant):

‘[You are to] restrain yourself to native and simple tea-table drinks, as tea, chocolate, and coffee. As likewise to genuine and authorised tea-table talk, such as mending of fashions, spoiling reputations, railing at absent friends, and so forth. But that on no account you encroach upon the men’s prerogative, and presume to drink healths, or toast fellows, for prevention of which, I banish all foreign forces, all auxiliaries to the tea-table, as orange-brandy, all aniseed, cinnamon, citron, and Barbadoes waters, together with ratagia and the most noble spirit of clary. But for cowslip-wine, poppy-water, and all dormitives, those I allow. These provisos admitted, in other things I may prove a tractable and complying husband’.

These are rather strange provisos to any marriage … and perhaps we can conclude that Mirabell – the future husband – has the upper hand here. Mirabell associates products imported from more exotic climes with sexual licentiousness and so deliberately limits his fiancée’s freedom to drink and act as she pleases when she is hosting company. He wants her to act as a perfect, feminine wife. However, in another way it is Millamant who holds the power here. Mirabell mistakenly describes tea, coffee and chocolate as ‘native and simple tea-table drinks’ and thus – in the context of the day – actually fails to circumscribe his future wife’s behaviour.

A few years later, Alexander Pope published the first edition of his brilliantly humorous mock-epic poem, The Rape of the Lock (1712), in which he also links chocolate with upper-class extravagance and revelry. The poem opens with the sun peeping through the windows at the beautiful Belinda, the poem’s unfortunate heroine:

Sol through white curtains did his beams display, 
And ope’d those eyes which brighter shine than they, 
Shock just had giv’n himself the rousing shake, 
And nymphs prepared their Chocolate to take; 
Thrice the wrought slipper knocked against the ground, 
And striking watches the tenth hour resound.

Chocolate was the breakfast drink of those who could afford to enjoy a sumptuous, leisurely meal, whilst men of business drank coffee in the morning. Pope’s pointed satire is directed at those whose purpose in life is to ‘taste a while the pleasures of a Court’. The inhabitants of this world continually fail to distinguish between serious matters and pleasure, between actual threat to the nation and flirtatious actions. Chocolate is at once a distraction, an idle pleasure, and a humorous method of punishment. Later in the poem Pope mingles the punishment of mythological figure of Ixion – who tried to seduce the Queen of the Gods – with the production of hot chocolate:

Or, as Ixion fix’d, the wretch shall feel 
The giddy motion of the whirling Mill,  
In fumes of burning Chocolate shall glow, 
And tremble at the sea that froths below!

This is just one of the many occasions on which Pope reduces the terrifying to the ridiculous – we imagine a young woman dangling over a chocolate pot because of her immoral behaviour at a fashionable party.

Stay tuned for more chocolate history from Nicoletta, and a recipe for delectable Italian-style hot chocolate.


Sophie Coe and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996)
William Congreve, The Way of the World (London: Black, 1994)
Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock (London: Penguin, 2011)


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