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Gin Blossoms:

From: Miles Townes

Date: 10/24/2002

Time: 10:32:41 AM

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Gin Blossoms

‘Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason’ by Jessica Warner

By Jonathan Yardley,

whose e-mail address is [email protected]

Thursday, October 24, 2002; Page C04


Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason

By Jessica Warner

Four Walls Eight Windows. 267 pp. $24.95

In the third decade of the 18th century, the men and women at the bottom of the heap in London found something new to get them through the bleak days and nights of their lives. Invented by the Dutch in the middle of the previous century, it “was originally known as genever, and it was made by redistilling pure malt spirits with juniper berries.” It was “a smooth and reasonably palatable beverage” with considerable alcoholic kick, but the version that English distillers finally managed to come up with was “barely drinkable.” What mattered was that it was cheap. For London’s “vast population of impoverished and unruly immigrants,” Jessica Warner writes in “Craze,” it soon proved an elixir:

“For thirty-one years, from 1720 to 1751, cheap gin reigned supreme in the slums and alleys of the capital, giving rise to what has since come to be known as the ‘gin craze.’ Gin was the original urban drug. Cheap, potent, and readily available, it met the needs of an urban population, numbing countless thousands to the fatigue, hunger, and cold that were the lot of London’s working poor. Most of the people who drank gin lived in Westminster (which at the time was not nearly as fashionable as it is now) and East London; the men who made laws for them naturally made their homes elsewhere, primarily in the fashionable squares and crescents that were springing up all over West London. The contrast between the two ways of life could not have been more extreme: one was orderly; the other most emphatically was not.”

As that paragraph makes plain, Warner has chosen to tell the story of the gin craze largely in terms of class: “The distaste of polite men and women for gin and its drinkers . . . reflected a growing divide — both physical and cultural — between rich and poor.” This places her squarely within academic orthodoxy (she teaches at the University of Toronto), which for some time has been fixated on class as well as race and gender, but in this instance ideological fashion appears to agree with historical truth. Gin was the opiate of the ordinary people, who were mostly illiterate, brutish and rude; the Gin Laws enacted by the ruling class were intended to keep the poor in their place, since “a reduction in drunkenness would inevitably lead to an overall reduction in lawlessness, and with it a greater willingness to obey both employers and magistrates.”

Thus the story of the gin craze takes on larger and more interesting implications than may at first be evident. On the whole, Warner tells it well. She has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into ersatz 18th-century cuteness — her preface, for example, is billed as “Containing as Many DISCLAIMERS as EXPRESSIONS OF GRATITUDE, along with Divers ENCOURAGEMENTS to the READER” — and in her closing chapter she turns gratuitously political, but by the standards of the academy her prose is both lively and accessible, and she keeps the narrative moving along in an agreeable way.

It is a tale with a notable cast of characters, among them Sir Robert Walpole, Lord Chesterfield, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson and William Hogarth. The last of these, the great engraver and printer, depicted what he called “the dreadful consequences of gin-drinking” in “Gin Lane,” of which he wrote: “In Gin Lane, every circumstance of its horrid effects is brought to view in terrorem. Idleness, poverty, misery, and distress, which drives even to madness and death, are the only objects that are to be seen; and not a house in tolerable condition but the pawnbroker’s and Gin-shop.”

Probably this was not far from the truth. Certainly it reflected polite society’s view of gin and those who drank it. The poor, naturally, saw matters otherwise. Gin eased the pain of their lives, made them garrulous and sociable, provided a small income for those who sold it. As Parliament passed no fewer than eight Gin Acts between 1729 and 1751, the poor found innumerable ways to ignore or disobey them; indeed, what was most notable about all this legislation was how ineffective it was.

Not merely were the Gin Laws intended to keep the poor in their place; they were also meant to “transfer the burden of financing the government’s past and current expenditures to urban manufacturers, merchants and consumers in the form of excises.” Excise taxes on gin — which grew by more than 1,200 percent between 1700 and 1771 — were especially appealing to the great landowners and/or their representatives who controlled Parliament, because gin’s “drinkers consisted primarily of the urban poor, who, unable to vote in parliamentary elections, could virtually be taxed at will.”

Mostly the poor just ignored the taxes and drank the gin, with ghastly consequences for their health. This caused great consternation among the bluenoses, who took it upon themselves to improve the lot of the poor by denying them their gin, resulting in the Gin Act of 1737, a piece of “blatant social control” that “had the unintended consequence of transforming an unthinking indulgence into a conscious act of political protest against an already unpopular government.” People got sloshed to thumb their noses at Parliament, or so Warner would have us believe. Whatever the motives behind it, they kept on drinking, and they turned with fury on the paid informers whom the bluenoses tried to sic on them:

“By unleashing informers on the working population of London, polite society had traded one evil for another. Informers, it turned out, posed an even greater threat to law and order than did the motley people who sold and drank gin. Informers turned neighbor against neighbor, and, what was worse, they brought still others together in riot and protest. And neighbors who coalesced against the informers in their midst posed a far greater threat to law and order than did scattered drunken individuals acting out on their own.”

Eventually, Warner argues, the gin craze died a natural death, as all crazes do. She claims, though, that popular resistance to the Gin Laws was “a testimonial to the power of ordinary people: they could not make laws, but they could, given sufficient provocation, unmake them.” There is more than a bit of truth to that. There is rather less to Warner’s strained effort, in her closing chapter, to draw parallels between the Gin Craze of 18th-century London and the crack-cocaine epidemic of 20th-century America. This does permit her to put her own leftish politics on display, which doubtless gives her a frisson of pleasure but closes what is otherwise a good book on a silly and self-indulgent note.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Last changed: October 24, 2002

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