Sometimes, as a historian, what you’re researching starts to feel close to home. It happened recently, as I was researching and writing a piece on Victorian ‘secret drinkers’. The late nineteenth century saw significant interest in the ‘lady secret drinker’ – buoyed by a renewed temperance movement, psychiatric ‘degeneration’ theory that suggested alcohol was one step on the path to insanity, and concerns about women being more prominent in the public sphere.
The secret drinker that worried Victorian commentators was usually middle- or upper-class, and did her drinking either at home or in urban spaces like department store cafes – places that made drinking, to an extent, more socially acceptable. A central concern was the grocer’s, which allowed women to buy drink alongside their other shopping and take it home to drink away from prying eyes.
In accounts of the secret drinker, the tone of both the medical and the popular press could be pretty sensational, sometimes bordering on the comedic. It was difficult not to smile at the tales of wealthy ladies going to the opera with brandy hidden about their person: small bottles hidden in elaborate ostrich feather fans, bracelet cases, and – the ultimate and likely fictional contrivance – necklaces that concealed alcohol inside rubber spheres made to look like glass fruits.
But the more I read, the more all of this grated. There was nothing comedic about the story of a woman who, when her children came home from school, ‘ran after them with a kettle of boiling water’. Having lived with a ‘secret drinker’ for much of my childhood and teenage years, there was nothing funny about arriving home from school to find a parent swaying as they stood, slurring, accusing you of being a terrible daughter. There was nothing glamorous about finding cans of Special Brew hidden around the house – under beds, inside cake tins on the highest shelf of the kitchen, wrapped inside laundry. Suddenly, the slightly hysterical tone of some of the nineteenth-century temperance tracts didn’t seem so far-fetched, when they talked about women having grocers forge their accounts to conceal the amount of alcohol they bought. Not when you’d been asked, repeatedly, to lie to your father about where those cans of extra strength lager had come from.
Secrecy was a central concern for the many Victorian commentators whose work I read: the fierce guarding of drinking habits from the view of others, and getting children or servants to smuggle alcohol into the house. It was a secrecy borne out of serious addiction, and of shame. What these writers were less concerned with was the way in which secrecy and shame could affect others in the household, especially children. That’s one of the reasons why Nacoa’s work is so crucial: to challenge that sense of shame and to break through that barrier of secrecy. The children of alcoholics have nothing to feel ashamed about – although at times their parents might make them think they do. The late nineteenth-century child (and indeed many twentieth and twenty-first-century children) would have had limited opportunity to raise the question of their parent’s drinking with someone from outside the family – Nacoa fills a much-needed gap in support networks surrounding alcoholism.
I’ve just completed a Sobertember for Nacoa, and plan to do other fundraising activities in the future. I think there’s also something to be said for researching the history of alcoholism. Stories of Victorian secret drinkers highlight that this is far from a new problem, and that children of alcoholics today are certainly not alone in their experiences.
Dr Jennifer Wallis is Lecturer in Cultural and Intellectual History at Queen Mary, University of London.
Images from from: Wellcome Library, London.