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  • Addiction and British Visual Culture, 1751–1919: Wasted Looks by Julia Skelly
  • Jane Lilienfeld (bio)
Addiction and British Visual Culture, 1751–1919: Wasted Looks, by Julia Skelly. pp. xii + 187. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014, £76.58, $149.95.

Julia Skelly’s Addiction and British Visual Culture, 1751–1919: Wasted Looks seeks to problematize the idea that addiction can be inferred from gazing at the addicted person’s body. Arguing that addiction is not imprinted physically on the human body, the narrative challenges numerous images dramatizing alcohol and drug abuse by examining paintings, satirical prints, photographs, advertisements, and architectural structures. Synthesizing theoretical discourses of pictorial analysis, gender, addiction, and gay theories, Skelly interrogates the display of Victorian cultural attitudes toward “gender, class, sexuality, race, consumer culture, space, architecture, bodies, empire, and disease” (1). Underlying the extensive theoretical interventions is the author’s humane observance, grounded in what George Vaillant terms “the medical model,” that addiction is a physiological disease, not a moral issue (The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited [Harvard University Press, 1995], 42–119). Viewing the issue of addiction within this array of discursive sites, the book challenges the uninformed gaze, encouraging understanding and empathy rather than judgment.

The insistence that “visual culture has contributed to and been informed by, gendered discourses related to addiction and addicted individuals” grounds the book in the continued gaze of today’s material and visual cultures, for example, of “crack mothers” and their “wasted looks” and suffering infants and children (12, 13). The analysis of William Hogarth’s representation of the drunken working-class mother in his 1751 etching and engraving “Gin Lane” movingly explains that the mother’s drunken inability to care for her child is shown to endanger not just the little boy she tries to hold in her arms, but also the British nation. Thus, “the monstrous mother” is graphically imprinted onto the viewer’s gaze, judging the female gender and place in British culture as harmful unless contained by sobriety and obedience to male authority (20). Unfortunately, the judgmental gaze could be introjected by the addicted women, leading to self-shaming: “shame keeps addicted individuals in hiding” (35). Rejecting the judgmental gaze by replacing compassion as the lens through which to view the addicted mother, the narrative suggests that, according to Skelly: “Many women have consciously or unconsciously [End Page 147] internalized this image, and as a result addicted mothers who cannot stop drinking for the sakes of their children inevitably believe themselves to be monsters” (37). Not only the addicted person, but also the artist depicting him or her could be judged harshly; such was the case for the great satirist George Cruikshank, who became a temperance advocate. “The great paradox of Cruikshank’s life was that, as an active drinker, and possibly an alcoholic, he was more artistically and financially successful than when he lived temperately” because his inability to drink in a homosocial world was thought to have “unmanned” him (68).

Certain architectural spaces enabled safe havens for the drinker because they “became the loci of anxieties about consumption in general and women’s consumption in particular” (73). Thus, the Crystal Palace and the gin palace were thought to use “glass and other aesthetic strategies to seduce and dazzle the spectator/drinker” (73). Theories of the dangers of women’s consumption of commodities and/or alcohol can be seen in “The Ladies and the Police—the Battle of the Crystal Palace” from Punch in 1851 (91). This graphic satire “effectively revealed the permeability of gendered socio-spatial boundaries and the frailty of the ideology of separate spheres” (94). Having rendered the dangers of the visible gendered body, Skelly transforms the visible into the invisible via queer theories of the closet in the chapter entitled “Closeting Addiction: Confinement, Punishment, Concealment.” Here, the text interrogates the visual erasure of addicted persons by exposing the sites wherein they were forcibly hidden. Nineteenth-century medical literature often asserted, without empirical evidence, that women alcoholics hid their drinking inside the home. The visual space of “the home” expanded to include the prison, the lunatic asylum, and “Inebriate asylums” (100). Even so, the addicted person was not hidden, and...


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pp. 147-148
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