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!”
-Chapter 11, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
*First published 2013. Updated March 2021.
Since first making this several years ago, I’ve since followed the breadcrumbs to find the original Bride cake recipe that laid the groundwork for all English bride cakes from 1769.
The bride cake (today known as the wedding cake) has a long history, first coming about in the 17th century, after it transitioned from bride pie, an ornate meat pie, eaten as the wedding dinner rather than as dessert.
English tradition meant the cake was a single layer fruitcake covered in almond paste and hard white icing, first seen in The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald in 1769.
While it seems simple, making a bride cake was expensive and in depth. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy provides a recipe that included 6 pounds of dried fruit and 32 eggs. The icing is made with double refined sugar, musk (obtained from a gland of the male musk deer), ambergrease (from the digestive system of the sperm whale) as well as orange-flower water. Beaten for 2 hours, when dried, the baker was to watch constantly to make sure the icing wouldn’t color. During the Victorian era, the white icing of the cake symbolised many things, including social status and purity.
The royal nuptials of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840 were a turning point in wedding cakes as the English knew them. Queen Victoria’s cake was a sugary sculptural and architectural work of art that symbolised the social status of being a royal. Described as a ‘great beast of a plum cake, some ten feet in circumference’, it “weighed 300 pounds, was three yards in circumference, and fourteen inches in depth”. The cake included sculptures of Britannia, the royal pair in Roman costume, and one of Victoria’s canine companions.
While the wedding cakes of their children would be monumental in comparison- 6 to 7 feet high and again shifting the wedding cake trend to multitiered- the Queen’s cake changed the tradition of wedding cakes.
Being from the upper class, it’s likely Miss Havisham would have attempted to have her own bride cake inspired by the royal cake during her wedding. Great Expectations was published in 1860, but it’s suggested Miss Havisham is “scarcely forty”, according to Dicken’s annotations. It’s possible, then, that Miss Havisham would have aspired for a wedding cake usually seen only in royal weddings to show her status.
Of course, when Pip first sees Miss Havisham’s bride cake, it has been sitting there for many years.
“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.”
- Allen, Emily. Culinary Exhibition: Victorian Wedding Cakes and Royal Spectacle. Victorian Studies. Vol. 45, No. 3 (Spring, 2003), pp. 457-484
- Blakemore, Erin. England’s Obsession with Queen Victoria’s Wedding Cake. May 6, 2018. https://daily.jstor.org/englands-obsession-with-queen-victorias-wedding-cake/
- Charsley, S.R. Wedding cakes and cultural history. Routledge, 1992
- Doyle, Richard. A Journal Kept by Richard Doyle in the Year 1840, London, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1885.https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002005249884
- Hindley,C. The Life and Times of James Catnach, Ballad Monger. 1878
- Rutigliano, Olivia. I regret to inform you that Miss Havisham, Dickens’ embittered crone, is actually only . . . 40. Feb 19 2020. https://lithub.com/__trashed-27/
- Wilson, Carol. “Wedding cake: A slice of history.” Gastronomica 5.2 (2005): 69-72.