Characters and their Cups

Webb's Chocolate, 1870 - 1900, Boston Public Library

This post asks the question, why don’t Dr. Frankenstein or Count Dracula drink chocolate?

Let’s get this out of the way: Franken Berry and Count Chocula hit the shelves in 1971. While Chocula may have inspired this inquiry, he does not figure into our story.

First, an inventory of the drink's dramatis personae before the 19th century:

The early eighteenth-century Republic of Letters* dripped with chocolate. Jonathan Swift’s correspondence brims with cups of it and the fashionable houses in which to drink them with colleagues. (See Cacaosophy’s spring season of posts on Swift’s costly habit.) The Abbé Prévost’s narrator in the Mémoires d’un homme de qualité (Memoirs of a Man of Quality) takes it recreationally, just as Swift did. It is built into the late afternoon schedule during a period when he spends the day tutoring, and he enjoys it over conversations in Paris at the Faubourg St. Germain and in Madrid (31, 201, 218). Samuel Richardson’s eponymous character Clarissa stood at the door, almost out and away from her captor, Robert Lovelace, when Mrs. Sinclair, the brothel keeper, poked her head into the hallway. She offered her a cup of chocolate—a delay just long enough to allow Mr. Lovelace to get his coat and hat and accompany the ill-fated heroine to church against her will (Letter 4, 18). Eliza Haywood’s Female Spectator has occasion to mention chocolate houses now and again, and Book 8’s satirical character Curioso Politico signs his letters with the dateline “White’s Chocolate House” in London, where he naturally sits, as Swift did, to write them (99). Charlotte Lennox’s Henrietta orders chocolate for breakfast (21) and Voltaire’s Candide learns that syphilis was the price Europe paid for chocolate, hears the tale of a marchioness who uses it to kill, and nonetheless enjoys a cup after a long and difficult journey to Venice. (Again, see the season of posts.)

Chocolate's mid-18th-century moniker, Theobroma cacao, courtesy of Carl Linnaeus in 1753, aptly describes chocolate's ubiquity but, if contemporary literary settings are any evidence, proved a misnomer. Chocolate shows up at terribly inconvenient moments for heroines, excites libertines, and perpetrates villainy. Marie Jeanne Riccoboni’s Jenny has a choice of tea or chocolate, though the heart to take neither of them, on the day of a wedding into which she has been forced by circumstance in L’Histoire de Miss Jenny (The Story of Miss Jenny, 214). The crafty Mistress Belmour in How to Hold Him (La Façon de le fixer, Act 3, Scene 4, 195) offers chocolate to Mistress Lovemore, who is too distraught to drink it when she comes seeking help with her husband’s wandering eye. Denis Diderot’s Sister Suzanne cites it among the Mother Superior’s favorite pleasures to share with her sex-slave novitiates in La Religieuse (177, 197).

The Marquis de Sade famously requested and drank chocolate with abandon while imprisoned in the Bastille, where he (over)stimulated his creative faculties and produced the century's most violently licenscious novels. His libertines drink chocolate in Les 120 Journée de Sodom (120 Days of Sodom), Justine, and Juliette (Lekatsas, 104). Juliette, one of Sade’s finest libertines, takes it often for breakfast and eventually, in an echo of Voltaire, uses it to disguise the stramonium (Datura stramonium, Thorn-apple) with which she kills her flesh-eating Russian friend Minski. Even Rousseau, for whom the idea of a pleasurable antidote posed more ethical dilemmas than it resolved, drank it en route to Montpellier to restore his health. The suggestion comes from one of the “vixens” he meets during his travels, Madame du Colombier, in Les Confessions (The Confessions, Book 6). But we know he also drank it at the Procope, the famed coffeehouse he frequented in Paris, so did not need vixens to lead him to it.

Finally, in Les Trois Femmes (Three Women), Isabelle de Charrière has Théobald, son of the Baron and Baroness of Altendorf, the "prettiest village in Westphalia" (le plus joli village de la Westphalie, 7)--again Voltaire!--request it impertinently when he finally rolls out of bed at 11AM. His mother exclaims in vain, "Chocolate at 11! You're living in a fantasy, my son!" (137). Taking her at her word, the happy heir never gets dressed that day.

In the course of the next century, a countercurrent in literature quelled the fire under the chocolatière. Enter Chocolate, seed of disappointment, embarrassment, and risible decadence.

Brooks' Chocolate, 1886, Boston Public Library

Alexander Dumas borrowed conceits from Voltairian satire and Sadian fantasy to create his sinister Crown Prosecutor Villefort who dooms Edmund Dantès, the sailor wrongly accused of treason that will takes his revenge as the Count of Monte Cristo. Villefort suspects his wife of trying to kill him the only time she serves him a cup of chocolate (Chapter 108). [Spoiler alert: she has murdered half his family, so might well have been trying to kill him.] The Brontës don’t serve it to anyone respectable, certainly not at Wuthering Heights. What’s more, Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester embarrassingly admits: “I liked bonbons too in those days, Miss Eyre, and I was croquant—(overlook the barbarism)—croquant chocolate comfits, and smoking alternately” (Chapter XV). Incidentally, comfits are sugar-coated nut candies, making these the very same delights Napoleon craved from Debauve. They are also the passion of Monsieur Paul, a Frenchman of "infantine" tastes in Charlotte's last novel, Villette. Said Frenchmen also demands to be served steaming chocolate at breakfast, a decidingly Gallic habit.

Dickens pertetuated this mid-century Francophobic satire of taking chocolate, letting it typify the unacceptable the abuses of the Old Regime. Only the likes of "the great lords in power at Court" haunting A Tale of Two Cities could possibly afford the full staff required to, as he puts it, get it to “the throat of Monseigneur”:

Yes. It took four men, all four ablaze with gorgeous decoration, and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur's lips. One lacquey carried the chocolate-pot into the sacred presence; a second, milled and frothed the chocolate with the little instrument he bore for that function; a third, presented the favoured napkin; a fourth (he of the two gold watches), poured the chocolate out. It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two. (Book 2, Chapter 7, “Monsieur in Town”)

Paris before the Revolution is where the bombastic symolism of chocolate belongs.

Huyler's Chocolate, 1893, Boston Public Library

Later, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women sour on the French chocolate that young Amy expressly commissioned for her first party, “a little artistic fete,” when, on eve of the event, it fails utterly to froth (Part 2, Chapter 26). As British bookends to this period of chocophobia, chocolate does not fortify any of the ailing, expiring characters in Frankenstein (1818) or Dracula (1890), although concerns about life and health drive the plot of both novels. What’s more, they traffic in the sort of dark twists for which chocolate’s unruly reputation seems an excellent fit. [It is not lost on the Cacaosopher that blood fully upstages chocolate in the vampire's playbook, but that none of the as-yet-not-undead characters turn to it to restore their literally drained and depleted systems seems significant.]

Horror of the Romantic variety does not give chocolate a call-back. Why? First, the literary obligation to froth a cup on everyone’s table à la française just seemed to dissipate in Britain over the 19th century. Second, as the shamefully croquant Mr. Rochester attests, chocolate plays different social and culinary roles as the century unfolds. To find out—figuratively speaking—where the chocolate went when it no longer came along in the plot as a potent social aspiration, lethal drink, or libertine sex toy, we turn to the father of Naturalism, Émile Zola.

For one thing, as technologies and imperial cultivation made cacao more affordable, it retreated into the private kitchens of the successful middle class. Chocolate served in bowls and heating on the stove, habits of the bourgeoisie, makes several appearances in Zola’s novels. Pot-Bouille (slang for Dutch oven, volume 10 of the 20-book Les Rougon-Macquart series) follows a number of bourgeois families who live comme il faut (respectably) under the Second Empire circa 1860. The Pichons, following the morning habits of the bourgeoisie, start the day with bowls of chocolate (Chapter 11).

One chapter earlier in the novel, the high bourgeois philanderer Monsieur Duveyrier, a counselor at the Court of Appeals, dines at a very fine restaurant in Paris known as the Café Anglais. The 6-course summer meal begins with cream of asparagus soup and timbales à la Pompadour (perhaps this preparation), continues to small plates of trout and Chateaubriand, crescendoes with elaborate entrées of ortolan—a species of bunting—and crayfish, and culminates at roast of venison with artichoke hearts. It ends with a modern soufflé au chocolat—a doubly luxurious, though appropriately light dessert—and une sicilienne de fruits, or fruit salad (Chapter X).* Once drinking chocolate was common enough for middle-class tables, the rich enjoyed their fine cacao in desserts fit for a restored king.

Huyler's Chocolate, 1891, Boston Public Library

In the 7-part, 40-chapter epic novel about the working class, Germinal, chocolate does not fortify the workers, but appears when the scene shifts from the factory floor to the home of the factory owner Monsieur Grégoire. Chocolate keeps warm on the stove as Madame and Monsieur wait to take breakfast with their daughter Mélanie, who sleeps in until 11AM before bursting in and declaring how good her warm brioche will taste dipped into the chocolate (Part 2, Chapter 1). Zola's bourgeois scene mimes the aristocratic scene in Isabelle de Charrière, establishing as an upwardly mobile social trope the decadence of sleeping late.

Then, clandestine treats in Zola’s fin-de-sicle short story “Le Grand Michu” mark a contemporary trend in cacao-based products: candy bars. When the boys revolt against the horrible food at their school by skipping lunch, they hide chocolate and jelly in their desks to make the dry bread they gather for sustenance palatable (V). These “sweets” are foods associated with childhood and with eating bread, not with sociability and nourishment. By 1890, candy answered readily to the name chocolat.

Winthrop Baker, 1870, Boston Public Library

While the absence of the chocolate drink from the greatest medical horror novels ever written does not signal its disappearance from the literary world of the 19th century, Zola’s social commentaries do attest to a new chocolate economy that began to thrive shortly before he died in 1902. Apothecaries would lose ground entirely to commercial chocolatiers, and the social health benefits of drinking chocolate would give way to the corrosive tongue pleasure of bonbons.

Culturally and fictionally, the restorative beverage forfeited its potency as a trope to edible morsels, as Cadbury, Hershey's, Nestlé, and Zola attest. But before cacao slipped fully from a nutrient on adult tables to a sugarloaf in children’s cups and desks, pharmacy rose up one last time to take its cacao back. Next month: the end-of-century, short-lived resurrection of "rational chocolate."


*Although there are recipes for soufflés in the 18th century, Marie-Antoine Carême, considered the progenitor of modern French haute cuisine, provides the recipe Zola's wealthy characters would be eating. His legendary Le pâtissier royal parisien published in 1815—the year of the Bourbon restoration after Napoleon's defeat—includes preparations for a variety of soufflés (242).



Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Part 1 & Part 2. Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1868.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1847.

Charrière, Isabelle de. Les Trois Femmes. Paris: Libraire des Nouveautés, 1797.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London: Chapman and Hall, 1859.

Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo. London: Chapman and Hall, 1841.

Haywood, Eliza. The Female Spectator [1744-46]. Vol. 2. 7th edition. London, H. Gardner, 1771.

Lekatsas, Barbara. “The Pastilles of the Marquis de Sade,” Chocolate: Food of the Gods. 99-106, ed. Alex Szogyi. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Lennox, Charlotte. Henrietta [1758]. Eds. Ruth Perry and Susan Carlile. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Abbé de Prévost. Memoirs of a Man of Quality. Written originally in the French tongue by himself, after his retirement from the world. Vol. 1 [ECCO]. London: E. Cave, 1742.

Riccoboni, Marie Jeanne de Heurles Laboras de Mezières. "L’Histoire de Miss Jenny" [1764]. Œuvres complètes de Madame Riccoboni. Vol. 2. Paris: Foucault, 1818.

---. "La Façon de le fixer" [1769]. Œuvres complètes de Madame Riccoboni. Vol. 5. Paris: Foucault, 1818.

Richardson, Samuel. The Works of Samuel Richardson: The history of Clarissa Harlowe. [1748] Vol. III. H. Sotheran & Company, 1883.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Les Confessions [1782]. The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau. London, 1903.

Voltaire [François-Marie Arouet ]. Candide [1759]. New York: Boni & Liveright, Inc., 1918.

Zola, Émile. Pot-Bouille. Paris: Charpentier, 1883.

---. Germinal [Paris: Charpentier, 1885]. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1885.