Sunday, 13 March 2016

Tipsy Victorians

Tipsy Victorians

Figure 1. Earthenware Minton & Co. artefact at the V&A.
'Victoria' Wine Cooler
Figure 2. Model of the Crystal Palace at the V&A

When thinking about the most prolific points of time throughout the Victorian era, it is understandable that the Great Exhibition (1851) should spring to mind. And it is easy to understand why - the Exhibition showcased the works of British industry as well as the rest world. On a recent trip to the Victoria and Albert museum, I therefore found myself looking for an artefact, from the Exhibition, to inspire my research into the social and cultural attitudes of the Victorians. Whilst looking at the displays it was important to me that I found something which was both unusual and interesting and did not have the clearest links to literature and its impact on the Victorians. The ‘‘Victoria’ Wine Cooler’’ which was produced by Minton & Co., fascinated me for many reasons. The features were intricately designed and beautifully coloured, a piece that would have sat perfectly on the table of any respectable dinner party. However, what interested me most was the fact that Queen Victoria herself gave her name to this particular wine cooler when it was showcased at the Great Exhibition.
Attitudes to Alcoholism
Figure 3. Painting at the V&A of  Queen Victoria in the Great Exhibition

Victoria’s influence on the wine cooler is important, as it highlights that despite the fact that she is a woman, the drinking of wine is an acceptable and civilised thing to do within the correct setting in which a cooler such as this would be used. Yet, women were continuously scrutinised for appearing to enjoy alcohol. In the article “When Seeing is Believing” (2008), Julia Skelly suggests that the ‘British temperance movement… in 1828’ (4) was a key influence upon changing social attitudes to excessive alcohol consumption. In particular, within this ‘movement’ there was a ‘strong female membership’ (4). This was due to ‘men’s alcoholism’ (5) being considered as significantly less of a problem than women who drunk excessively. In fact, it was suggested that there was ‘empirical evidence that women who drank alcohol would eventually become criminals’ (5). By suggesting that there is ‘empirical evidence’ makes it more believable for society to trust the facts behind the dangers of women drinkers. This also proposes that the reduction of alcoholism is not the main focus of the ‘movement’. Instead it is largely preoccupied with removing women from their freedom to drink alcohol and society from the so called dangers they pose. Skelly links this ideology back to religion as the female drinker is seen as a ‘fallen woman’ (5). The ‘fallen woman’ alludes to the original sin and downfall of man as a result of women. Because of this, there would have been intense social pressure for women to conform to the new beliefs set by the ‘movement’ to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed or to abstain altogether. 
Women and wine in Literature

These social pressures successfully changed social attitudes to women and eventually became ingrained in everyone’s beliefs. Therefore in many literary texts the appearance of women abiding to this way of life was an important way to encourage women to act in a similar manner. In the novel Bleak House (1853), Charles Dickens presents the reader with a juxtaposition of attitudes to wine between Esther Summerson and Mr Guppy’s mother in Mr Guppy’s proposal of marriage:
She never interferes, is all for peace, and her disposition easy. She has her failings
 – as who has not? – but I never knew her to do it when company was present, at which
time you may freely trust her with wines. (79)

By referring to Guppy’s mother’s ‘failings’, Dickens alludes to her addiction to drinking alcohol. By not clearly defining this ‘failing’ as alcoholism, the reader senses that the reliance upon alcohol within Victorian Britain is a taboo. However, in some ways Dickens permits this behaviour of the female in the text as Guppy suggests that the overall ‘disposition’ of his mother is attuned to how a woman should behave. As well as this there is a stress upon the perceptions of other people within this quote. As long as a woman successfully appears to adhere to normal patterns of behaviour when in ‘company’ then it is excusable for her to rebel when she is not at risk of being perceived as the ‘fallen woman’. 
Dickens also indicates that there is a generation gap between the attitude of Esther and her proposed mother-in-law in the novel:
“Shan’t I give you a piece of anything at all, miss?” said Mr Guppy, hurriedly drinking off a glass of wine.
“Nothing, thank you,” said I. “…Is there anything I can order for you?”
“No… I’m sure. I‘ve everything that I can require to make me comfortable – at least I – not comfortable – I’m never that.”  He drank off two more glasses of wine, one after another.
I thought I had better go. (78)

Esther is significant of the new generation within Victorian societies. This new generation is born into society and are already raised with the attitude that the consumption of alcohol for women is perceived negatively. Consequently, when Mr Guppy suggests that she has a ‘Quarter’ (79) of a glass of wine, she refuses because she is aware that it is the incorrect thing to do. Not only this, but it highlights the indifference that Skelly suggests Victorians had towards ‘male alcoholism’. Dickens depicts Mr Guppy’s dependence on wine within this passage, consuming three ‘glasses of wine’ almost consecutively in order to provide him with the courage to make his proposal to Esther. Dickens’s use of hyphens disrupts the flow of the reading, thus mimicking the awkwardness of Mr Guppy; the wine does not aid his efforts to woo Esther. In actual fact, as seen here, the wine encourages Esther to leave the Mr Guppy alone completely – this stems from her ingrained belief that drinking alcohol to the point of becoming hysterical, whilst in the company of others should be avoided. 
Figure 4. Wine glasses, an artefact from the Great Exhibition at the V&A.
Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
This spurred my thoughts to the wine itself. Wine was not a populous beverage amongst all people in the Victorian period because it was imported from abroad; this meant that it was more expensive than more common drinks such as gin and beer. For this reason, this meant that wine was somewhat of an elitist drink. Those who could afford it would drink it in excess and at every meal. In Kelley Graham’s book Gone to the Shops, the eating habits of the Victorian era are encapsulated. Street food was seen as an ‘important part of working class life’ (63) because it gave people access to a wealth of different foods and drinks, both hot and cold. Ultimately, street food made drinking ‘hot wine’ (63) an affordable and practical beverage for working class people. Many working class people worked ‘long, demanding hours’ (63) and this introduced the idea that people could eat and drink on the go. With little time to go home for meals or drinks, or without the money to create an entire meal or buy a whole bottle of wine, street food revolutionised the way in which the poor could eat. The fact that hot food and drinks were widely available was a necessity during the cold months as it became more practical for people to have portable, hot and readily available food. 

However, this was seen as an increasingly uncivilised way of living. As Graham suggests ‘middle class people would have been uncomfortable’ (63) consuming street food. This would have lowered people’s perception of them as they would immediately become associated with a convenience based, working class way of life. Interestingly in Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), we are exposed to the effects of wine within the streets as a ‘large cask of wine… shattered like a walnut-shell’ (37) onto the street. The use of simile provides the reader with the dramatic imagery of the scene as we envisage the cracking of the ‘cask’ and the highly desired contents spilling out of it. As ‘all the people… suspended their business… to run to the spot and drink the wine’ (37), Dickens highlights the addictive qualities that wine had and its effects on the working class, particularly in Paris. What is important here is the fact that although the novel was published in 1859, it was set within 1775 during a time of revolution. The point that is being made here by Dickens is that within Victorian Britain, this is not a civilised way to behave. It is clear that over all the Victorians believe that although wine could be enjoyed at dinner parties in moderation. However, for those within the working class and women, the consumption of not only wine but any alcohol, was intrinsically linked to misbehaviour and social taboo. 

Works Cited             
Dickens, Charles, and Charles Dickens. A Tale Of Two Cities. New York: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1993. Print.
Graham, Kelley. Gone To The Shops. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008. Print.
Skelly, Julia. "When Seeing Is Believing: Women, Alcohol And Photography In Victorian Britain".Queen's Journal of Visual & Material Culture 1 (2008): 4-5. Web.
Images Cited
Figure 1. Stevens, Sarah. “Earthenware Minton & Co. artefact at the V&A. 'Victoria' Wine Cooler”. 2016, JPEG.    
Figure 2. Stevens, Sarah. “Model of the Crystal Palace at the V&A”. 2016, JPEG.
Figure 3. Stevens, Sarah. “ Painting at the V&A of  Queen Victoria in the Great Exhibition”. 2016, JPEG.

Figure 4. Stevens, Sarah. “ Wine glasses, an artefact from the Great Exhibition at the V&A.”. 2016, JPEG. 


  1. Hi Sarah,
    This is a great insight into the attitudes towards drink in the nineteenth century. I particularly liked your points about perspective -- that the taboo around women and drink was very much about public appearances, and that alcohol created a whole new set of social codes. I also found your point that drink, particularly wine, operated as a social indicator, dividing the classes, enlightening. I wonder what influence the increased availability of wine to the working classes had upon upper- and middle-class drinking habits?

    1. Hi Alastair,

      Thanks for such a lovely response.
      In my research, my understanding was that there was a growing understanding on the type of wine that people were beginning to drink. A port compared to sherry for example; sherry was the choice of drink of many middle class women and was a typical drink had at dinner parties over desserts. Port on the other hand was drunk by middle class men. The representation of the middle class is that they have no differentiation between which wine is which, the simple fact that they're drinking it is all that mattered.

  2. Hello Sarah,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post and the images from your trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum are a great addition.

    Like Alastair, I was also drawn in by your reference to perspective. Particularly the idea that the consumption of drinking alcohol by females was linked to the idea of the fallen woman!

    Your post encouraged me to look back over Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. I was amazed to find very little information on the consumption of alcohol - except within desserts. Do you think this is a result of the social expectations you discussed?


    1. Hi Phoebe,

      Thank you also for a lovely response.

      I also did look over Beeton's text and noted that there was little reference to alcohol. I do believe that this is because the text was targeted at women and managing their households in what Beeton perceived as the right and respectful way. The consumption of alcohol was not seen as respectful and I do believe this is as a result of social pressures that Beeton chose to omit drinking culture from the narrative at large. I wish I had enough words to include a section on this also!!

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