The Smoking Bishop

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The other day, while moving books from one room to another, I came across a battered bound volume of issues of Fun magazine for 1864. It was a rather gamier rival of Punch, full of waspish political comment, excruciating puns and rather good cartoons; more Private Eye than Punch perhaps. One article was a bit unexpected, given the popular view of the Victorians. It began:

Boulogne was blessed last Sunday with the presence of some fourteen hundred British excursionists . . . It was quite a psychological study to see them land (for many were drunk at that early stage of the day’s amusements); some skipping up the companion with the rollicking air which is characteristic of the Briton who is only occasionally drunk; others, and these the habitual topers, clambering up in a heavy, sodden sort of way, and others having to be carried on shore.

This is not quite the way the Victorians are supposed to have carried on, and it got me thinking about how drink and drinkers are dealt with in the novels of the greatest chronicler of the English in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens.

In one way, Dickens was not a Victorian. He was born in 1812 and his formative years were spent under the Regency, then the reigns of George IV and William IV. By the time of Victoria’s coronation, many of the themes and obsessions of his creative work were formed and he retained a Regency exuberance in his early work that was not always to the taste of his more educated readers. One thing they did not care for in his early novels was his treatment of drink and drinkers.

It was true that the bawdy and generally drunken eighteenth century was dead and buried. By 1836, in his book The Anatomy of Drunkenness, Robert MacNish could say ‘the vice has certainly diminished among the higher orders of society, but there is every reason to fear that, of late, it has made fearful strides among the lower . .

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About the contributor

William Palmer’s book, The Island Rescue, was published in 2007. He is at present writing one about twentieth-century writers and alcohol in their work and lives.

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