Author’s Note: An excerpt from an article I wrote for Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine a few years ago. On the ever popular subject of alcohol.
“Does [Mr Allen] drink his bottle a day?” the obnoxious John Thorpe asks Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, going on to say that “at the last party in my rooms… upon an average we cleared about five pints [of wine] a head”. Now, even taking into consideration that Thorpe invariably exaggerated everything he’d ever done, there was still a note of truth in the comment. Alcohol was known to flow freely at the universities. Drunken students are not merely a modern phenomenon!
But drinking a surfeit of alcoholic beverages was certainly not limited to students. Jane Austen herself wrote in a letter to her sister that “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day. You will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing, by attributing it to this venial error.” And as to the parties of the ton, it was positively expected that the wine should flow freely throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning. The Prince Regent, predictably, took drinking alcohol – as he took so many other things – to excess. Indeed, he was not sober even at his own wedding, and his new wife Caroline would later claim that George was so drunk that he “passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him”.
Even away from the upper classes, however, it was common for adults to start drinking with their breakfast. Ale was a common accompaniment to the large plates of black pudding and other meats which constituted a Regency ‘breakfast’. Indeed, small beer, a phrase used to describe the second, weaker, brewing of an ale, was even drunk by children. Whilst it was low in alcohol (approximately 0.8%), it is nevertheless difficult to imagine anyone but the most hardened drinkers nowadays starting quite so early in their libations. And even they would be unlikely to give it to their children. Of course, the dangers of drinking untreated water meant that it was actually safer to drink beer than fresh water, which may give some measure of defence to the Regency drinkers.