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Two Cups Too Many

William Hogarth, Rake's Progress, Plate 6, The Gaming House, 1733

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress, Plate 6, The Gaming House, or White's Chocolate House, 1733

From fall 2010 to late summer 2011, Jonathan Swift fulfilled a long-standing commission of chocolate for Stella (Esther Johnson) at the request of her companion, Rebecca Dingley. It is not clear from his letters whether or not Swift drank much of the drink himself until 1712, when he developed a social habit around his morning cup of cacao. However, early into the ‘unarrived cure’ saga, January 1711, Swift received chocolate tablets in the mail. At the time of the gift he had shifted allegiance from Whig to Tory, assumed editorial direction of The Examiner (an anti-Whig newspaper, 1710-1714), and commenced socio-political networking for the Tories and lampooning the Whigs. The tablets came in a gentleman’s goodie basket sent by his friend and fellow wit, Robert Raymond, Secretary-General of the Tory Parliament.

January 4th, 2011, Letter XIII (325)

(10th) I must go this morning to Mr. secretary St. John. I promised yesterday, but failed, so I cannot write any more till night to poor dear MD. — At night. O faith, Dingley, I had company in the morning, and could not go where I designed; and I had a basket from Raymond at Bristol, with six bottles of wine, and a pound of chocolate, and some tobacco to snuff; and he writ under, the carriage was paid; but he lied, or I am cheated, or there is a mistake; and he has written to me so confusedly about things, that Lucifer could not understand him.

Henry St. John (Mr. secretary above) and Robert Raymond were friends of Swift’s and fellow members of a group of London writers that elsewhere (below on 12/12/12) Swift refers to as “our Society.” In 1714, their gatherings flowered into a writing project with Swift and Alexander Pope leading the way and St. John as a member. With the Scriblerus Club, they published collaborative satires under the pen name Martinus Scriblerus. In this first month of January 1711, Raymond appears to be setting Swift up with munitions for a long writing spell, or perhaps subtly encouraging him socially by outfitting him with just what he’d need to host a gathering of London’s sharpest wits for a night.

As the package to Stella attests, well-heeled women and men enjoyed hot beverages and tobacco in eighteenth-century London. These costly pleasures were both lucrative crops from England’s Caribbean colonies, particularly Jamaica. Plantations established by Spain were exploited by England as early as the 1670s, when Jamaica formally became a possession of the British crown. By 1711, sugar was its main crop and that island would later become the Empire’s largest production of sugar cane.

This package, like Stella’s, was meant to be a gift with “carriage,” that is, transport, paid. But, as it seems was often the case in Swift’s dealings with the post, something went wrong. Raymond’s present turned into what the French call a “poisoned gift”—foiled at the hands of Lucifer, in this case—when the recipient was asked to pay for its delivery.

Over the course of 1711, obsessed as he was with Stella’s chocolate, Swift spoke no more of his own. Then, 1712-13 brought another series of gifts, this time more consistent (and presumably not Lucifered), and Swift blossomed into a chocolate aficionado. That year, he referenced chocolate spaces more frequently, as his connection to Tory politicos and his leadership among their ranks developed.

February 9th, 1712, Letter XLI (259)

(10th) We have no packets from Holland yet. Here are a parcel of drunken whiggish lords, like your lord Santry, who come into chocolatehouses, and rail aloud at the tories, and have challenges sent them, and the next morning come and beg pardon. General Ross* was like to swinge** the marquis of Winchester for this trick, the other day; and we have nothing else now to talk of till the parliament has had another bout with the state of the war, as they intend in a few days. They have ordered the Barrier Treaty to be laid before them; and it was talked some time ago, as if there was a design to impeach lord Townshend, who made it. I have no more politicks now. Night, dear MD.***

If chocolate inspired the creation of drinking spaces, those spaces inspired virulent political debate. The particular variety of debate happening in 1710 was fierce. Whigs had lost power, Tories had taken control of the government, and both sides struggled with how to manage “the state of the war.” In this case, disinterested and victorious Tories endured the fallen glory of inebriated Whigs. The confidence of the Tories is symbolized here by Swift's swipe at his countryman Lord Santry and General Ross’s go at a marquis, as well as the sang froid of the Tory group awaiting news and sipping chocolate. The year goes by with only a passing reference to Ozinda's Chocolatehouse until December.

December 12th, 1712, Letter LVI (342)

(12th) My brother Ormond sent me some chocolate to-day. I wish you had share of it: they say it is good for me, and I design to drink it in the morning. Our society meets next Thursday now the queen is in town; and lord treasurer assures me, that the society for reforming the language shall soon be established. I have given away 10 shillings this day to servants. What a stir about company? I keep no company at all, nor have I any desire to keep any. I never go to a coffee-house nor a tavern, nor have touched a card since I left Windsor. I make few visits, nor go to levees; my only debauching is sitting late where I dine, if I like the company…I don’t sleep well and therefore never to drink coffee or tea after dinner.

As Dingley had encouraged Stella to take chocolate for her fatigue, so Swift’s friends suggest it as a boost. In this case, his brother—who became his drug dealer for the next few months—sent a supply, enough to share, with the advice to drink it in the morning. Although in the letter, the information appears in reverse, we can surmise that he has already shared with Ormond that he is not sleeping, prompting the suggestion that he take a morning booster.

Pietro Longhi, La cioccolata del mattino, 1775-1780

Pietro Longhi, La cioccolata del mattino (The Morning Chocolate), 1775-80

Drink it first thing is just what Swift would do once he acquired the equipment to brew it properly at home. History does not explain how Swift drank his first two gifts, but it may have been without proper utensils. As Madame de Sévigné inquired of her daughter and we might we ask Swift, “Chocolate would restore you, but you do not own a chocolate pot…. How [did] you manage?” (Feb. 11, 1671)

January 4, 1713, Letter LVIII (361)

(8th) You must understand that I am in my geers, and have got a chocolate-pot, a present from Mrs. Ash of Clogher, and some chocolate from my brother Ormond, and I treat folks sometimes…

(9th) Dr. Pratt drank chocolate with me this morning, and then we walked.

Jane Ash, wife of the St. George Ashe (20th-century spelling), Bishop of Clogher until 1716, Swift’s former tutor, and the cleric rumored to have married Swift and Stella, came to the rescue. She noticed the woeful gap in Swift’s kitchen and complimented the brother’s present with a pot specially designed to brew and serve chocolate frothed with a dowel. Armed with this elite brewing equipment, Swift opens his stash to company, and not long at all after declaring himself antisocial.

The first visitor on record to benefit from the gifts, and only one day after he inaugurated the pot was Dr. Benjamin Pratt. Swift’s old friend from Trinity College visited him in London in 1713. That choice could not have been more appropriate as Pratt also studied under St. George Ashe, whose wife had donated the inspiring chocolate-pot, and had become Provost of Trinity when the Tories came to power (and Swift came to the Tories) in 1710.

Further, Swift being in his geers—a vernacular expression borrowed from equine husbandry, meaning in harness or ready for work—on the morning of the 8th has something to do with drinking chocolate. While the causality of the sentence is unclear the newly gifted chocolate pot does seem to have caused a miraculous burst of bodily and social energy. Or did the gift of the pot allow him to brew it properly at home for the first time and experience the caffeine lift straight out of bed? On the undoubtedly frigid morning of the January 9th in London, in any case, drinking a cup gave Swift and his guest the energy to head out for a walk.

Chocolate Pot, Colonial Williamsburg, second half of the 18th C

Colonial Williamsburg, Copper Chocolate Pot, second half of the 18th century

In the coming weeks, the gift of the chocolate pot changed Swift’s life, and not necessarily for the better. Dr. Pratt is one among an elite coterie of acquaintances welcomed to Swift’s “levee” (his morning ritual of receiving guests) by the offer of a drink. He will soon have trouble fending off the crowds.

January 25th, 1713, Letter LIX (377)

(Feb. 3rd) I saw lady Jersey**** with lady Masham, who has been laying out for my acquaintance, and has forced a promise for me to drink chocolate with her in a day or two, which I know not whether I shall perform (I have just mended my pen, you see) for I do not much like her character; but she is very malicious, and therefore I think I must keep fair with her.

Chocolate attracts people to Swift like bees to honey and the February wind blows in a character who has recently come to life in vivid color on the big screen: Abigail Masham. Played by Emma Stone, she vied violently for Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) favor with her cousin, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Dramatically liberal though the film may be, it takes up a court commonplace, the monarch’s embrace of a “favorite,” and the life-altering consequences for the incumbent when a new choice is made. The Duchess had been the Queen’s friend and companion for most of her life and indeed secured for her lower-ranking cousin Abigail Hill the post of woman of the bedchamber in 1704. In 1710, Anne chose Abigail--a Tory--as her Lady-in-waiting. Abigail became the Queen's confidant and advisor until the end of her life, displacing Sarah--a Whig. Politics, if not romantic passions, were at play. Swift developed a long-lasting friendship with Lady Masham once he got to know her and became close to her husband, Samuel, 1st Baron Masham (played by Joe Alwyn). Anne had elevated Samuel to peerage in 1712 to give the Tories a majority in the House of Lords. Later in his life, Swift described Abigail in glowing terms. Here, we witness one of their early meetings, by her design and over chocolate. Swift insinuates that she vies for his attention the way she has the Queen’s, and he does not find it endearing. Perhaps a shared pot of chocolate did the trick. If not as a result of this entreaty, she surely shared a pot with him eventually, as chocolate had become Swift's daily habit.

March 1st, 1713, Letter LXI

(8th) You must know, I give chocolate almost every day to two or three people, that I suffer to come see me in a morning. My man begins to lye very well. ‘Tis nothing for people to be denied ten times. My man knows all I will see, and denies me to every body else. (396)

(13th) I had a rabble of Irish parsons this morning drinking my chocolate. I cannot remember appointments. I was to have supped last night with the Swedish envoy at his house, and some other company; but I forgot it and he raillied me today at lord Bolingbroke’s, who excused me, saying, the envoy ought not to be angry, because I serve lord treasurer and him the same way. For that reason, I very seldom promise to go anywhere. (399)

Early into the next month, Swift's morning chocolate looks more like a busy social obligation. By rough calculation based on the numbers here, he served a dozen visitors a week. Indeed, Swift gained a formidable reputation once the Tories conscripted him to throw barbs at the Whigs as their gifted “Divine that scatters Fire-brands, Arrows, and Death.”***** The way he words it here, chocolate along with his wit made him the morning destination.

National Museum of American History, Chocolate Pot, 1740-60

National Museum of American History, Chocolate Pot, 1740-60

Positioned as the private chocolatehouse of the Tory elite, he served chocolate like a reward to those he let in. His manservant had to take up lying to refuse the many unwanted self-inviters. Mid-month he is serving “rabbles” of parsons, who risk draining his stock. Deflecting visits and snubbing the Swedish ambassador Karl, Count of Gyllenborg, Swift nonetheless left his house and his chocolate for Henry St. John, 1st Viscount of Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke led the Tory Parliament and, that year, co-wrote the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in April, which ended the War of Spanish Succession securing peace under Queen Anne with Louis XIV’s France.

Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer for Queen Anne and Bolinkbroke’s co-architect of the treaty, wrote the speech the queen was to deliver to Parliament announcing it. In a gesture that attests to the appreciation of Swift’s talents—metaphorized in his letters as his enviable chocolate—Harley charged him with final editing, a precious non-satirical act in England’s political life. Together in March, they also formed the Scriblerus Club, where Swift’s literary character took shape.

March 21, 1713, Letter LXII (409)

(28th) I had a mighty levee to-day. I deny myself to everybody, except about half a dozen, and they were all here, and Mr. Addison was one. I had chocolate twice, which I don’t like. Our rainy weather continues. Coach-hire goes deep.

March madness peaked when approximately 6 people come through one morning, nearly twice the average number of visitors at once. This crowd with the “mighty” reputation of an Addison (of Tatler and Spectator fame) of only his hand-picked favorites lingered long. So long, Swift had two servings of chocolate. Such an unwelcome situation, which no doubt caused digestive issues, may have ruptured the social calendar, as Swift never mentions chocolate again in his correspondence through June 6th, 1713. Again, as politics follow chocolate in the letters, the Treaty of Utrecht and newly minted Scrbilerus Club consumed the time and talents of several main players in Swift’s correspondence.

When the correspondence ended, Swift’s fate, indeed England's fate, had already shifted. The return of Whig policy and the surge of Queen Anne’s displeasure with his brand of satire sent him back to Ireland to assume the Deanship at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Mid-1714, Queen Anne died, the Tories fell, the House of Hanover assumed control of the British Crown, and a few friendships cultivated over chocolate perished along with the Stuart line.

Swift lost his proximity to power, to chocolate, and to the luminaries—several exiled or imprisoned—that might have sent him a box from London by endless packet boat express. Living in Dublin under King George I & II, with Stella and without his morning chocolate, Swift nevertheless got the best from his satirical pen: Drapier's Letters (1724), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729). If London cacao had helped him sky-rocket with the poets and the Tories, Dublin exile and discontent under the Georgian Whigs made his solo career.


Swift's letters are in the public domain and available here.


* Henry, 3rd Baron Barry of Santry, was a member (Lord) of the Privy Council of Ireland. He is not to be confused with his more famous son, Henry, 4th Baron Barry, a member of the Irish House of Lords who was accused of murder. General Ross had been appointed full General of the Royal Dragoons of Ireland in January of 1712. He served as a member of Parliament from 1710 to 1722.

**Swinge = to flog

*** MD, Swift’s abbreviation for both women. My dears…? ****Judith Herne Villiers, wife of William Villiers, 2nd Earl of Jersey as of 1711.

*****Qtd. in Ian Higgins, “Jonathan Swift’s Political Biography,” review of David Oakleaf’s A Political Biography of Jonathan Swift (Pickering & Chatto, 2008). Eighteenth-Century Theory and Interpretation 53 (2012).

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