Editor’s Note: An Vleugels graces Points today with a few words about her forthcoming book, Narratives of Drunkenness: Belgium, 1830-1914 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013). An is a lecturer in the history of medicine, mind, and the body at Birkbeck, University of London.
1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
Narratives of Drunkenness is about how drunkenness was understood in Belgium in the second half of the nineteenth century. Drinking alcohol was part of daily life. Workers needed it: they believed gin and beer gave them necessary strength to get on with their heavy work. They also drank a lot in the pub, especially when there was something to be celebrated. Wealthy people drank a lot too, enjoying wine with their copious meals and sweet liquors afterwards to help digestion. But at some point and for some people this drinking became too much.
Félicien Rops, “Le Gandin Ivre” (“The Drunken Dandy”) (1877)
When and for whom, however, was not straightforward. It depended on cultural categories such as gender and class. For example, getting drunk in public was not the same thing for a group of workers who had just received their paychecks on a Monday as it would be for a middle class lady who needed her medicinal pick-me-up to deal with the boredom of her role as angel of the house. I tried to trace different stories of drunkenness in different places, in the countryside, the cities and also in the Belgian colony of Congo. Whereas in the beginning of the nineteenth century excessive drinking was seen as a vice and a responsibility of the individual drinkers, by the end of the century excessive drinking was regarded as affecting the whole of the social body and it became understood as a “disease.” The book traces how this shift came about in the complex and changing society that was Belgium in the second half of the 19th century.
2. What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
For me, the most interesting thing, although most certainly also the hardest, was the bringing together of so many different sources in a more or less coherent social history. I really enjoyed looking at artwork and analyzing contemporary novels. Especially in the later decades of the nineteenth century there was a great output of very exciting literature and art in Belgium, including works on drunkenness by writers such as Buysse and Lemonnier and artists like Rops and Ensor. Incorporating this type of source analysis with other historical work, like the study of the medical understanding of drunkenness and telling the political story of the curbing of drunkenness as an aspect of social control, was exciting and really contextualized the narratives of drunkenness.
4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
I came across manifold connections between syphilis and drunkenness that reverberated far into middle class culture. The story of the fascinating correlation between syphilis and alcohol in the nineteenth century and the link between medicine and morality here needs much more attention.
Also, I would have liked to take the subject further within a broader European context. I do mention in the book here and there what was expanding my gaze to the rest of Europe, but certainly this could be looked at much more in depth. These shifting stories of concerns with drunkenness in this period are certainly not uniquely Belgian but also European and perhaps even Western in cultural scope. Comparable histories of drunkenness in this period can be found in the United States as well. Specifically within this international context I wished I’d learned more about the campaign against drunkenness by middle class women as central to a truly international feminist campaign.
And finally, when turning to the Belgian colonial history of drunkenness, I was amazed to finding out how central alcohol and its trade was to the Western colonial project. It is a rather shocking history but one that urgently needs wider exploration.
5. BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
I would never dare to ask him and I doubt if he would be up for it, but I would like Tom Waits to read it. He’s now teetotaler of course, but his amazing voice tells his own history of drink.