Summer is the time when my (Amy’s) social media feeds fill up with pictures of weddings and everyone seems to be talking about the bride & groom’s choice of venue, colours, food, music… This summer the theme seems to be DIY weddings involving hand-crafted invitations, favours, decorations and – of course – cakes. I can now write that I have made my first cake for a wedding celebration, and that there are only a few crumbs of it left. Fortunately, this particular celebration was much happier than the aborted wedding I am writing about today: that is, Miss Havisham’s unsuccessful engagement to Mr Compeyson in Dickens’s Great Expectations.
As a beautifully decorated cake is at the centre of any wedding feast, it is to this that Dickens immediately draws the reader’s attention when they enter the gothic decay of Miss Havisham’s banqueting-chamber.
The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again point 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!”
As Great Expectations progresses, the “rotted bride-cake” comes to represent Miss Havisham’s rotted, ruined heart. Although inanimate, the cake is brought into a dreadful, fungoid life, whilst its owner, although still alive, approaches the condition of a corpse. The hint of Dickensian humour (‘greatest public importance’) does little to alleviate the horror Pip describes as he witnesses this ghoulish object. Miss Havisham’s wedding cake is a travesty of the many other cakes which we find at the centre of Dickensian festivities (such as the Twelfth cake in A Christmas Carol), whilst the jilted bride is a tortured echo of the happy couples at the conclusions of David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, and Bleak House (to name just a few).
In a blog post on cakes in fiction, the Guardian’s John Dugdale takes the symbolism of the “rotted bride-cake” one step further: “the way Dickens dwells on the grotesque details of decay implies that it depicts more than just Havisham herself, conceivably encompassing a Victorian Britain paralysed and made rotten by its sexual taboos”. To these taboos can be added the rusted machinery of the social hierarchy Miss Havisham is trapped within. It is the same social, patriarchal structure which condemns Bleak House’s Lady Dedlock to face a similar fate of death-in-life.
I’m sure many parallels can be made between Dickens’s England and our current post-referendum UK – but I’ve had enough of politics in the last week to clearly formulate or articulate such links. Instead, I want to celebrate the many marriages of my friends which have taken or are going to take place in 2016. And for that reason, the recipe below is for decorating an updated, modern wedding-cake which will replace any memories of Miss Havisham’s decaying feast. Marriage, of course, is Dickens’s ultimate symbol for the resolution of social tensions, the eradication of past mistakes, and a positive outlook on the future.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
John Dugdale, ‘Books best bakes: cakes in fiction from Dickens to George RR Martin’, The Guardian, 8 October 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/oct/08/baking-in-books-cakes-in-literature
Below I am only going to give instructions for icing a 20cm diameter wedding cake. This is an extremely easy method and does not require any specialist equipment beyond a few cutters. If you want to see a recipe for the fruitcake itself, visit this blogpost.
|2 tbsp apricot jam|
|800g shop-bought fondant icing|
|A range of food colourings, preferably gel rather than liquid|
|Icing sugar for dusting|
|1. Turn the fruitcake upside down to give a flat surface for icing. I prefer to ice in-situ – so I put my cake on the cake stand.|
|2. Heat the apricot jam in a pan with a teaspoon of water. Use a pastry brush to brush onto the outside of the cake – this is the glue that will hold on the marzipan.|
|3. Lightly dust your work surface with icing sugar. Knead the marzipan to soften, then roll it out into a circle about 30 cm diameter. Roll the marzipan round your rolling pin, then roll off onto the cake. Press the marzipan into place, using a knife to smooth any ripples, and cut to size. (Eat the spare marzipan 😉 .)|
|4. If possible, leave the cake to sit for a day so that the jam has cooled and the marzipan dried out.|
|5. Lightly moisten the surface of the marzipan with water.|
|6. Lightly dust your work surface with icing sugar. Knead 600g of the fondant icing until soft, then roll out into a circle about 30 cm diameter. Roll the icing onto your rolling pin, then roll off onto the cake. Smooth into place and cut off the excess.|
|7. Divide the remaining fondant icing into 4 blocks of about 50g each. Knead your selected food colourings into each block until even colours are reached. You should have 4 different coloured blocks.|
|8. Lightly dust the work surface with icing sugar and roll out your 4 colours. Using the cutters, cut your desired shapes (I used the cutters in the pictures above).|
|9. I cut my icing into different sizes of flowers. I then layered the flowers, using a bit of water mixed with icing sugar as glue to hold them together. Let these dry for about 10 minutes.|
|10. To attach the flowers around the base of the cake, mix a little water and icing sugar to act as glue. Put some of this mixture on the back of each flower and stick onto the cake.|
|11. Add more flowers to the top of the cake to complete the decoration.|