Monday, January 13, 2014

The perils of drinking in Victorian taprooms

I thought I was done writing about Judith Flanders's The Victorian City, but I can't resist sharing the passage I just read. I'm going to quote at a bit greater length than usual because (as you'll see) both sides of the story of Victorian London's drinking establishments needs to be told:
Hints to Men About Town, published in 1840, warned that "as every Man about Town is liable to be placed in situations where it is almost impossible to escape perfectly sober," such a young man needed to learn how "to take his glass . . . without making a fool of himself." The author, who called himself "The Old Medical Student," advised young men to eat as well as drink, to stick to one type of wine, not to get rowdy, and, above all, "Do not be prevailed upon to sing" (which is surely good advice today too). This was followed by a section on what to do when a friend passed out from drink and how to cure a hangover. It was all very matter-of-fact.
Is a medical student really the person to trust on this topic? I've not known a lot of them, but those I did definitely included in their number some intemperate drinkers. (Also, this is sadly pre-Jeeves: the best advice for dealing with a hangover is, of course, to ring for his assistance.)

Then there's the distaff side:
The Servant Girl in London: Showing the Dangers to which Young Country Girls are Exposed was published in the same year, but could not be further away in tone, even though its author had similarly pragmatic views. Readers were instructed that many pubs were entirely respectable, having been established by servants of gentry, and in them one could expect to meet "some of the most pleasant company. . . . The conversation is often very instructive, and well expressed . . . about politics, the news of the day, parish intelligence, and the like." It was the taproom that was the danger: "Here collect the working men, male servants in and out of place, hackney-coachmen, omnibus cads, &c.," who "drink far more in proportion than those in the parlour . . . and frequently insult most grossly" the servant girls from local houses, the "wives of mechanics [artisans], poor tradesmen, and the broken-down gentlewoman who keeps a school." These blameless females, while waiting to collect the supper beer, were obliged meanwhile to mingle with "the washerwoman, the market-woman, the basket-woman, the gaudily-attired courtesan, the sad street-walker." This mixing, warned the author, was "highly dangerous," but it was the mixing he was warning about, not the drinking.
Choose your drinking companions wisely, lady lushes! (And choose your books wisely, too: go get The Victorian City! You won't regret it!)

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