Great Expectations 150th anniversary: happily-wedded Miss Havisham sought


03 May 2011

To mark the 150th anniversary, in July, of the publication of Great Expectations, the Royal Society of Chemistry is searching for a happily-wedded modern Miss Havisham. 

The RSC will present a specially-recreated Victorian cake to the first woman with the maiden name Havisham coming forward to recount her successful wedding day.

In the 1861 book Miss Havisham famously lives and dies amid the decaying reminders of her cancelled wedding day, her mansion dominated by a disintegrating cake colonised by spiders. 

The gothic character of the jilted bride still in her ragged wedding gown has gripped readers and cinema-goers in the a century-and-a-half since the book appeared, to the fascination of the Victorian public who bought it in record numbers. 

The RSC has researched the recipe for her wedding cake, the ingredients of which ensured that it lasted a long time although it eventually ended mouldering atop a dining table surrounded by other reminders of  an abandoned wedding day.

Chemist and former Cambridge academic Dr John Emsley said the original Havisham wedding cake would "have lasted many months if it had the characteristics we associate with the wealthy in Dickens' novels. Today we are much more health-minded, therefore we tend not to lavish on the cakes some of the ingredients we regard as unhealthy, like sugar and the saturated animal fats that are in butter.  

"But in Dickens' day they would have given a wedding cake the really big treatment that would have had the effect of defending the cake against attack. For instance, the sugar content would probably have been very high. The cake would also have contained brandy which would have helped preserve it. Even today's rich fruit cakes, although no longer popular, are very similar and, like wedding cakes, are often baked weeks in advance of the occasion.

"Miss Havisham's cake, exposed as it was on the table, would have remained in an edible state for many months. But eventually it would start to be assaulted and would crumble. And if the house had rodents, like the mice in the book, then it would be subjected to their invasion. Once it crumbled then the spiders, as Dickens says, would probably set up home."

The white iced wedding cake as we know it today first became popular in Victorian England, although cakes were associated with weddings as far back as Roman times. Miss Havisham's wedding cake would most likely have been the same as the recipe given in Mrs Beeton's book of Household Management published in 1859.

The Miss Havisham Wedding Cake recipe

The Havisham Cake's ingredients would have been: flour (5 lbs, 2.28 kg), butter (3 lbs, 1.36 kg), sugar (2 lbs, 900 g), currants (5 lbs, 2.28 kg), ground almonds (1 lb, 450 grams), candid peel (1lb, 450 g) consisting of strips of lemon and orange peel, 16 eggs, grated nutmegs (2), mace ( oz, 14 g), cloves ( oz, 14 g), wine (1 gill, 140 mls), and brandy (1 gill, 140 mls).

When baked, the cake would then be covered with a layer of almond icing and then covered with a layer of sugar icing, both of which were made with egg whites, with starch also being added to the sugar icing. (Titanium dioxide, aka E171, is sometimes used to produce the brilliant whiteness of today's commercial wedding cakes.) Finally the decoration would be applied.

Mrs Beeton calculated that such a cake would cost around 2 shillings per pound weight, which would work out at about 2 altogether, and equivalent to two weeks wages for a married man. The energy content of such a cake would be around 30,000 Calories (kcals). It could provide enough food to feed one person for around two weeks, or a family of mice for several months.

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