Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Women and the Binge of Britain

As mentioned the previous post, I spent the past few weeks in London engaging in archival research for my dissertation. I managed to gather a lot of material that looks very promising, but I am now back home and beginning the lengthy process of reading through these sources.

How historians have fun.
While overseas, however, I seemed to encounter my topic on a regular basis outside of the archives. Alcohol - in particular, binge drinking - is a on-going issue in England, and I managed to catch several news stories and a handful of documentaries about binge drinking throughout my stay. As many of the programs acknowledged, this is not a new problem. Studies on binge drinking in Britain have appeared regularly over the past decade, and Tony Blair referred to binge drinking as the "new British disease" in 2004. A study from in 2009 estimated that binge drinking costs the UK economy as much as £20 billion every year, due to working days (~17 million) lost to hangovers and drink-related illnesses, in addition to medical expenses.

And yet, this is a problem that long precedes the last decade. The eighteenth-century "Gin Craze" may well mark the starting point of the binge drinking phenomenon in Great Britain. Although concerns over drunkenness consistently appeared prior to this particular episode, such concerns are not unique to Britain, or to any specific society. The "Gin Craze" did spark a kind of panic, though, one that helped pave the way for the nineteenth-century British temperance movement.

But the existence of an earlier moment of alcoholic 'craze' isn't the only point of connection to modern concerns over drinking. One aspect stood out to me as I watched the news stories or the documentaries over this certain issue, and that was the constant prominence of drunk women. While both men and women appeared in these programs, usually falling on the street, yelling obscenities, or getting into some kind of fight, women in particular seemed to appear much more than men. A simple image search on Google demonstrates this as well:

Search terms: 'binge drinking Britain'
Women - drunk women, at that - seem to capture this particular crisis. In those pictures, we see a few charts, three pictures of drunk men (one engaging in a little cross-dressing), one nondescript picture of a person drinking, but the rest are all of women. A quick scroll down the page reveal more and more drunk women, the apparent symbol of Britain's binge.

But is this new?

William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751.
Not at all.

Hogarth's iconic image of the "Gin Craze" reveals the mayhem created by the eighteenth-century British binge, or at least the artist's perception of it. Many have written about this image, and its companion piece, Beer Street:

William Hogarth, Beer Street, 1751.
Hogarth intended to emphasize the destruction caused by the liquor gin, while upholding the wholesome qualities of beer. There are many levels of analysis that one can pull out of these images, but for this particular discussion, I would like to focus on the presentation of women. In Beer Street, there are two women featured upfront, and both are accompanied by men, each with an arm around the woman's shoulder. One woman appears to have a bemused, near smile on her face, while the other is clearly in the midst of her work - balancing a basket of fish on her head, holding a parchment detailing news about a fishery in one hand, and a mug of beer in the other. These women appear to be well-behaved and fulfilling their expected duties - all under the close supervision of men.

In Gin Lane, the fears of the degradation of society appear in full display, and centrally placed among the chaos is an intoxicated woman who is so far removed from her senses that she does not even notice the baby falling from her arms. Many horrific details appear throughout this piece - the skeletal man, starving to death but still holding on to an empty glass; the woman, located just above that particular man, who appears to be giving gin to a baby; and, in the background, a body being lowered into a casket without any apparent ceremony. And yet, out of all of these images, the most noticeable figure, the one that immediately pulls in the observer's eye, is of the woman dropping her baby.

This image displays many of the social concerns conjured by the presence of drunk women. Women were often prohibited from patronizing public drinking houses, and when they did drink, they customarily imbibed small beer (beer or ale with lowered alcoholic content - a drink also served to children). For a woman to be obviously drunk was not only a violation of social norms, but it sparked fears concerning the future of the British nation. For, if a nation is full of intoxicated, neglectful mothers, how can that nation prosper? Such arguments resulted from the "Gin Craze." While those same arguments are not as prevalent during the present debates over binge drinking in Britain, the prominent placement of images that feature drunk, young women seem to indicate a continuation of that  fear, centuries after the publication of Hogarth's haunting, but enduring, imagery.

"She sunk into a Taste for the lowest English Spirits she could procure... But the Subject is too tender, as I have hinted, to dwell upon; and I will therefore quit it; and, oh! that there had been no Occasion to say so much upon it, to this more delicate Part of our Species." 
- Thomas Wilson, Bishop of Sodor and Man, 1736

Further reading:
James Nicholls, "Drink: The British Disease?" In Last Orders: A Social History of Drinking (HistoryToday: 2012).
Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (Random House: 2003).

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