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Brian Howard Harrison. This new edition of a pioneering work, first published in , studies the impact of industrialization on drinking habits and attitudes toward drink in England.


The book had a major impact on writing about nineteenth-century social history, and continues today to be a much-used resource. This revised edition includes new material and assesses research done since It also features a fresh introduction which examines the book's place in the understanding of Victorian social history. Second, he makes a more determined attempt to place government debates in the wider cultural context of the time, looking at parallel discussions in the media and developments in contemporary political philosophy.

As a result, Nicholls pays significant attention to public debates, including the course of the Temperance movement.

Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872 (Second Edition)

The Politics of Alcohol therefore addresses something of a gap in the existing literature, where there is little work focused solely on alcohol with such a broad analytical and chronological sweep. Thus, the views he traces regarding alcohol and intoxication are marshalled to tell us something about how society viewed wider issues such as rationality, responsibility, godliness and pleasure.

  • Paul Jennings: A History of Drink and the English, 1500-2000 (reviewed by Pam Lock).
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Nicholls is drawn again and again to the nature of freedom and liberty and indeed liberal ism in relation to alcohol and the state. The book is arranged into short chapters each broadly covering a short chronological period. However, in this sense Nicholls is a victim of his own success, as the vignettes in each chapter often whet the appetite for a more detailed examination of the complex and intriguing issues he sketches — a detailed and nuanced examination which is often lacking in the existing literature, but which this work cannot fully offer due to its wide sweep.

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Importantly, Nicholls succeeds in drawing out the ways in which consumption of alcohol was viewed differently depending on what was drunk, by whom, and where. In discussing the differences in drinking, Nicholls reveals issues of class, wealth and status.

The strength of his account here is its careful analysis. He observes that distinctions were not simply created through a condemnation of lower-class drinking and silence on the issue of consumption by elites. Rather, the elite was actively constructed through the formalisation of distinctions between, for example, alehouses and taverns in the 16th century. The Licensing Act set limits on the number of taverns allowed in each city, and imposed strict approval processes for becoming a tavern keeper. Taverns were not the category of establishments associated with the lower classes; they were in fact the most exclusive of the three-tiered system of licensing: alehouses, inns and taverns.

The purpose of these exacting regulations was not to limit drinking, but to protect the social status of a set of elite establishments being devalued by proliferation. Conversely, in the 17th century, alcohol consumption became a phenomenon through which, according to Nicholls, the social elite could be attacked by the aspirational middle classes for a lack of godliness and public morality. In this way, Nicholls illustrates the importance of class without reducing the issue to a conception of the out-of-control carnivalesque working classes in opposition to the controlled, rational middle classes — a theme on which there is already plenty of material.

At the same time, he does not disregard the way in which excessive drinking was frequently construed as a problem exclusive to the lower orders of society. Notably, all these perceived problems of alcohol consumption have been invoked in the past hundred years to regulate or de-regulate the alcohol industry in Britain.

Nicholls looks at stated motivations and accounts of drinking practices with a critical some might say cynical eye. He describes how Habermas has portrayed the coffee houses as emblematic and supporting of sober Enlightenment rationality in contrast with the drunkenness of alehouses and taverns, before attacking this argument.

Victorians imp question

Nicholls instead sees in coffee house culture a deliberate, oppositional cultivation of an impression of sobriety and rationality to acquire cultural power. The idea that the discourses surrounding alcohol worked to cement forms of social distinction is a persuasive one; but this is not quite the same as the idea that the adherence to such discourses is a deliberate act of self-assertion. However, one of the reasons class is so powerful and pervasive is that, as Bourdieu argues, it works at a deeper level: we are disgusted by something that does not accord with our aesthetic disposition, and this disposition is so inculcated that it often, of not always seems natural , rather than something consciously created.

Nicholls is adept at drawing attention to how drinking practices, tastes and fashions were related to politics and technology. Wine was not always a respectable establishment drink; indeed, it was understood by many in the 17th century to be a sign of loyalty to the Popish French.

Drink and the Victorians by Harrison

Later, the new drink of porter and the general development of the brewing industry in the late 19th century were results of technical changes in the brewing process that enabled beer to last for longer, and also developments in transport technology that allowed it to be transported more quickly.

As well as linking developments to technology, Nicholls takes pains to point out how alcohol policy changed according to economic factors. In Bernard Mandeville pointed out that while alcohol specifically gin induced vice its manufacture created numerous respectable jobs: toolmakers, corn-reapers, maltsters and carriage-drivers, for example.

The economic value of the alcohol industry is still emphasised by the UK government.

Nicholls is at his strongest when he relates attitudes towards alcohol to the political philosophy of the time. For example, even while he attacks the Habermasian ideal of communication, he is careful to show how the ideal was powerful as an idea , rather than an objective description of reality.