- Drinking in Victorian and Edwardian Britain: Beyond the Spectre of the Drunkard by Thora Hands
For every working-class drunkard stumbling down Gin Lane, and for every corresponding middle-class temperance activist trying to save him, millions of unremarkable, moderate drinkers toasted another evening to each other’s health. Thora Hands’s Drinking in Victorian and Edwardian Britain: Beyond the Spectre of the Drunkard interrogates the habits of those ordinary drinkers, finding the power and meaning of their rituals and embedding their practices in a heady brew of social, economic, political, and medical contexts. A social history, Drinking also contains elements of the history of food and drink, medicine, drugs, gender, and empire by turns. Ideal in particular for an undergraduate audience, a free eBook on an enjoyable topic, written in Hands’s clear, direct prose, can serve as a gateway drug to more in-depth studies of Victorian history and culture.
Fundamentally, according to Hands, “[h]istory has shown that it does not matter how often or to what extent alcohol consumption has been problematized or prohibited—people still continue to drink. Therefore, the key to understanding drinking behavior is to try and understand why people drink” (2). To that end, she draws on other social and cultural histories of alcohol, undergirding her analysis with frameworks from [End Page 695] theorists such as Pierre Bordieu and Michel de Certeau. Deftly maintaining her analytical legibility, she uses their theories with a light touch to situate the intersections of consumption and everyday life within their broader contexts, sometimes upholding and sometimes challenging the status quo. As Hands convincingly illustrates, alcohol consumers were rational actors; at the same time, their actions were influenced, often explicitly, by broad, deep contexts, from medical discourse to popular culture to advertisements.
Hands begins at the endpoint of Brian Harrison’s Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815–1872 (1997), an analysis of the nineteenth-century temperance movement until 1872, which she identifies as a pivot-point in the global drink trade, a lucrative enterprise expanding so rapidly that profits tempered the temperance movement. Hands’s most significant scholarly contribution is her reframing of Victorian and Edwardian histories of drink to encompass all drinkers rather than reproducing the nineteenth-century fixation on alcohol abuse. Hands centrally argues that Victorian and Edwardian intoxication existed along a continuum of behaviors and motivations for drinking. The choice of what, where, and how much to drink lay at the center of a dense web of social and cultural forces.
Hands skillfully captures the fundamental tension at the core of her narrative, which came to a head when an anti-drink temperance movement based on morality met a pro-drink movement based on laissez-faire principles, encompassing both drink merchants’ freedom of trade—on an industrialized, global scale—and consumers’ freedom of choice. Late-Victorian attitudes toward drink distilled into the desire for both the liberal freedom to drink and the moral judgment not to exercise that freedom. In representing this context, Hands organizes the book into three parts, and in the first section, “Drinkers,” she examines the political discourse surrounding drinking and drunkenness, mining parliamentary enquiries from the mid-to-late nineteenth century. She argues that these testimonies uncovered a range of drinking behaviors that varied according to “social class, gender, occupation, ethnicity and regional location” (11). Drawing on testimony including crime statistics, doctors’ interviews, and data from analytical chemists, parliamentarians increasingly realized that the working class drank because poverty conditions made them miserable. These enquiries further revealed that members of Parliament could conceive of a working-class man rationally exercising his right to drink in moderation in a pub; however, the quiet menace of the unfeminine working-class woman secretly drinking to excess continued to perpetuate sexist double standards of behavior.
The second section, “Drinks,” provides three case studies for the marketing and selling of beer, spirits, and wine in the late-nineteenth century: beer...