Discerning drinkers?


While the Temperance Movement gained ground in the nineteenth century, authors writing about Ireland were sure to include references to drinking. In The Nun’s Curse, however, one of Charlotte Riddell’s characters is disappointed with her Guinness, while the locals are disappointed with her disappointment.

Great effects spring, we know, from little causes; and had Miss Dickson, mourning over the absence of her national beverage on draught inadequately replaced by Guinness’s stout in diminutive bottles, not been told by a functionary, enraged by the lady’s strictures on his country, that in Donegal a woman “wouldn’t be thought just the thing who could drink two glasses to her dinner”.

Other characters in The Nun’s Curse are equally discerning in their choice of tipple:

There was a decanter of wine close at his hand, filled not with that old Madeira judges approved of so greatly, but with a far inferior sherry Mr. Conway did not care for, and had left untouched during luncheon.

Yet, the same Mr. Conway turns to the demon drink as his life spirals out of control.

For a long time, too, he had been drinking steadily—drinking not to get drunk, but to secure a temporary forgetfulness—drinking even sometimes, to Ann Patterson’s and Byrne’s great horror, whisky undiluted by a single drop of water. And it’s that strong, observed the butler, “he might as well be taking liquid fire into his stomach.” He might as well certainly, with his temperament, have been taking liquid fire into his brain. Every one who knew anything of Mr. Terence Conway was aware his head could not bear any indulgence of the sort. Mark Barry, who was by no means a teetotaller, had often warned him that way danger lay. When a man can’t take a tumbler or two without making a fool of himself, it is time he signed the pledge, said Letitia’s astute husband; and many persons besides Mark had hinted to Mr. Conway that he would do wisely to observe moderation in his drinks.

Mark Barry may have only hinted, but illustrations produced during the nineteenth-century were not so subtle, with this American example by Nathaniel Currier being one of the most famous.

The Drunkard’s Progress (1846) by the American lithographer Nathaniel Currier (The Library of Congress), via Wikimedia Commons

The Drunkard’s Progress: from the first glass to the grave

Step 1: A glass with a friend
Step 2: A glass to keep the cold out
Step 3: A glass too much
Step 4: Drunk and riotous
Step 5: The summit attained. Jolly companions. A confirmed drunkard
Step 6: Poverty and disease
Step 7: Forsaken by friends
Step 8: Desperation and crime
Step 9: Death by suicide

The blog of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware has some great images related to the temperance movement in the US and Victorian England.

And while many of the Irish characters in the corpus are associated with drinking to excess, there are plenty of English characters who are fond of a few at the weekend, such as Joe Gargery and others in Great Expectations, as we have mentioned in another post. Throughout the corpus alcohol is recommended and prescribed for all sorts of ailments (but I think we need another post to do this justice). John Thorpe in Austen’s Northanger Abbey muses:

“Lord help you! You women are always thinking of men’s being in liquor. Why, you do not suppose a man is overset by a bottle? I am sure of this—that if everybody was to drink their bottle a day, there would not be half the disorders in the world there are now. It would be a famous good thing for us all.”

He is fairly insistent on this point, and blames the weather:

“Oh! Lord, it would be the saving of thousands. There is not the hundredth part of the wine consumed in this kingdom that there ought to be. Our foggy climate wants help.”

Thorpe gives us an overview of what things were like during his heady student days at Oxford:

“Oxford! There is no drinking at Oxford now, I assure you. Nobody drinks there. You would hardly meet with a man who goes beyond his four pints at the utmost. Now, for instance, it was reckoned a remarkable thing, at the last party in my rooms, that upon an average we cleared about five pints a head. It was looked upon as something out of the common way. Mine is famous good stuff, to be sure. You would not often meet with anything like it in Oxford—and that may account for it. But this will just give you a notion of the general rate of drinking there.”

“Yes, it does give a notion,” said Catherine warmly, “and that is, that you all drink a great deal more wine than I thought you did. However, I am sure James does not drink so much.”

This declaration brought on a loud and overpowering reply, of which no part was very distinct, except the frequent exclamations, amounting almost to oaths, which adorned it, and Catherine was left, when it ended, with rather a strengthened belief of there being a great deal of wine drunk in Oxford, and the same happy conviction of her brother’s comparative sobriety.

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