The Endeavourers’ Reveal Day – Miss Havisham’s Banquet

I am part of on online art quilt group, The Endeavourers, that posts small quilts quarterly.  Our prompt for our tenth challenge was “A Scene from a Book”.

The scene that jumped into my mind was the famous decaying wedding banquet from Great Expectations.

I read that book when I was about 12 years old, and I could still vividly see the cavernous gloomy room, with a 20-foot mahogany table, covered in glossy linen, weighed down with mysterious shapes of tarnished silver dishes and heavy crystal, barely visible under the shrouds of cobwebs — and in the center of it all, an enormous 3-tiered cake, now hidden under spiderwebs.

When I thought about it, I realized that usually I am racing through a book, reading for plot, and I rarely visualize any setting in great depth.  So since this one description had stayed with me so clearly (and I know I have never seen a film version), it was obviously the one to go with.

Great Expectations was released in serial form starting in 1860, so I guess that Miss Havisham had suffered her marital disappointment in about 1820.  But I wondered if Dickens would really have cared about the historic details of banqueting in 1820, or if he would have just described a feast that would appeal to his 1860s readers.  I started researching elaborate weddings of the times.

That was a lovely rabbit hole to go down (in this case, with an actual rabbit) — is there anything more calming than looking at old cookbook illustrations and menus?

From Mrs. Beeton, 1861 edition. Source.


So gross. But it seems like the sort of detail Dickens might have included. From Mrs. Beeton, the 1861 edition. Source.


Always remember to garnish the lobster with crayfish. Source.

The menu. Surely Miss Havisham’s banquet would have been like this. Source.

Jellies and fruits. Source.

And then I found this wonderful series of posts on wedding customs of the 1850s.

Belatedly, I looked up the actual description in the novel, and was I in for a surprise.  The feast details that I remembered were not given in the book at all.

I crossed the stair-case landing and entered the room she indicated. From that room, too, the daylight was completely excluded, and it had an airless smell that was oppressive… Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimney-piece faintly lighted the chamber: or it would more expressive to say, faintly disturbed and troubled its darkness.  It was spacious, and I daresay had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered in dust and mould and falling to pieces.  The most prominent thing in it was a long table with a table-cloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks had 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 indistinguishable, 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….

These crawling things had fascinated my attention and I was watching them from a distance, when Miss Havisham laid a hand upon my shoulder…

‘This,’ she said, pointing to the long table with her stick, ‘is where I will be laid when I am dead.  They shall come and look at me here.’

With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.

‘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!’

Well, I decided to go with the cake anyway, and to imagine that the spiders were exceptionally talented ones that made lace patterns.

I was happy to get a chance to use a technique I had read about in a Cloth Paper Scissors magazine back in summer of 2005!  Margaret Talbot wrote about using all kinds of odds and ends of trims and laces, and painting them with textile paint, puff paint, and ink.

So I created my layer cake on a muslin base.  I used a piece of cotton I had dyed with persimmons to suggest the dark wood paneling of the room, and an old linen napkin for the table cloth.

The basic cake on the background.

I added webs of netting and lace, with black buttons to be the spiders.  It didn’t take long before I worried that I would obscure the cake entirely.

The cake with lace webs and button spiders.

This piece is not completely done.  I have not bound the edges yet.  I have been distracted by all the virus news and I did not start on this when I should have.

I realized that I never wrote about my previous piece for The Endeavourers here.  It was called Wish Drops, and I really liked how that one turned out.  You can read about it here.