09 September 2021

Dying Drunk and other Victorian Habits

I read an article a while back called "Time to Reread 'Anna Karenina'" on (of all places) The American Conservative, just to see what their take on it was and it was:

"The reader watches as Anna, a brilliant socialite with a respected husband and a smart young son, falls from grace: she nearly dies in childbirth of her illegitimate daughter; is cast out of all polite society; is isolated from her son, family, and friends; drives herself mad imagining her paramour is in love with other women; and, ultimately, commits suicide. Through all this, Anna refuses to repent her decision to be unfaithful. If there’s one idea Tolstoy wants you to come away with, it’s that affairs have consequences."  And then goes on to blame feminism because reasons.

Now yours truly, a/k/a Every Volume Eve, knows that almost every author who has ever written about  adultery generally comes to the conclusion that affairs have consequences.  Even Casanova occasionally knew he went too far.  She also knows that Tolstoy had enough issues with sexuality to keep generations of Freudians on 24/7 therapy alert, but the essayist apparently didn't.* 

Nor, apparently, did he know that Anna Karenina was no feminist, but she was a drug addict.  He certainly didn't mention it. Specifically morphine. When she gave birth to that illegitimate daughter, which almost killed her, the doctor gave her morphine because that's all they had back then for pain, etc. As the novel progresses, so does her addiction, until she can't sleep, go out, or do anything without morphine.  Other people in the novel (such as her sister-in-law Princess Oblonsky, a/k/a Dolly) notice her addiction, and warn Vronsky, who knows already, but no one can figure out what to do. And the night before her suicide, Anna pours her "usual dose" of opium, and the next morning, takes a little more, and goes out and hurls herself under a train.  (Sorry if I spoiled the ending for you.)

Basically, Anna Karenina is a damn good portrait of addiction in action. True, the references are brief, often subtle, sometimes euphemistic, but they would have been perfectly clear to a Victorian audience.**  I think some of it is that most modern readers don't think in terms of Victorian ladies - even Russian Victorian ladies - being drug addicts. (Somehow humans always think sex, drugs, and wild music are modern.) But they were.  

For example, a common event in Victorian literature and memoirs is someone's illness and death.  Along the way, they're generally given either a cordial or an elixir. Both were primarily alcohol, mixed more or less with opium (whether it was called morphine or laudanum) or cocaine (Sherlock Holmes wasn't the only one on "a seven-per-cent solution"). Laudanum, "a tincture of opium mixed with wine or water" that's been called the 'aspirin of the nineteenth century,' was the primary painkiller available. It was recommended for a broad range of ailments from cough, diarrhea, rheumatism, 'women's troubles', cardiac disease and even delirium tremens. (VictorianWeb) When Oscar Wilde said, "I am dying as I have lived: beyond my means," he was drinking champagne on his deathbed by prescription. In fact, cordials for the sick and dying are mentioned in so many Victorian novels that I've decided most Victorians died drunk and/or high.  

Cordials were also given to babies, especially when they were teething, colicky, etc.  Godfrey's Cordial (a/k/a "The Mother's Friend") contained one grain of opium per two liquid ounces, and those two ounces were mainly alcohol.  It was notorious for being responsible for infant deaths, but it was just so handy, and it did shut the little darlings up.  So it got used.  A lot.  (Citation)  

Then there were tonics.  Most children, adolescents, and women were given and/or took tonics to "build up their strength" and/or keep them "regular":  the most famous of these, of course, is Lydia Pinham's Vegetable Compound, which was made up of an almost modern recipe of herbs (including black cohosh) suspended in alcohol.  (see here)  ("Just a spoonful of whiskey makes the medicine go down...")

And of course, there was paregoric (camphorated opium tincture), widely used to control diarrhea in adults and children. This is what Beth March takes in Little Women (it's referred to solely as "camphor" there but everyone at that time would have known it was paregoric) when she suspects she's caught scarlet fever from the Hummell family.  She also takes some belladonna (on doctor's orders!), which is a tincture of deadly nightshade, and can do everything from blind you to kill you.  All things considered, I'm amazed that Beth lived as long as she did.  

Calomel (mercury) was used to treat everything from mumps to typhoid fever, and all of women's gastrointestinal troubles. Since mercury softens the gums, it was also given to babies for teething.  In real life it cured nothing, but it caused a lot of mercury poisoning, which had long-term consequences, especially in the babies.  Part of the reason you rarely read of a man being treated with calomel in a novel is that it was also used for syphilis, so to mention it as a treatment was to basically declare that he was an immoral rake, and pity his poor wife.  (In real life, see Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston's father.)

Cocaine lozenges were recommended as effective remedies for coughs, colds and toothaches in the Victorian era, not to mention indigestion, melancholia, neurasthenia.  Holmes was not the outlier that Dr. Watson would have us think.  

With all that laudanum, cocaine and alcohol floating around, the list of Victorian addicts is long.  Besides Anna, there's Anne Bronte's Lord Lowborough in the The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (she apparently studied brother Bramwell and copied his addictions with microscopic accuracy) to Dracula. (Addiction is addiction, folks, and Dracula certainly has all the symptoms, including using everyone and everything around him to get his next fix of that sweet, sweet stuff.)  Wilkie Collins used opium to good effect in both The Moonstone and The Woman in White).  

And in real life, there's Elizabeth Siddal, Gabriel Dante Rossetti's wife, who died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, while Rossetti himself became a chloral hydrate addict. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge also got high, which should surprise no one who's read Kubla Khan:

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning started taking laudanum for pain when she was 14 years old, and only managed to give up her addiction 30 years later, after her marriage to Robert Browning, when she realized that otherwise she would never have children. 

And none of this was considered illegal or particularly immoral, as long as you could earn a living, have children, carry on in society, etc.  

Today we live in a world in which the demarcations are clearly marked:  legal / illegal drugs; prescription drugs / illegal drugs.  But in the Victorian world those markers didn't exist.  You could buy anything, use anything legally.  The Victorians might be tightly buttoned when it came to sex, but with drugs and alcohol, there were no limits, other than morality and social standards, and to be honest, those were also much more fluid than ours.  Except for a few cranks like Bronson Alcott, everyone drank.  (For one thing, only a madman would drink Thames or Potomac or any river water.)  And when it came to pain and sickness, everyone took drugs.  Hard drugs.  It was all they had.

* Proof? The Kreutzer Sonata, Pierre's first marriage in War and Peace, and the fact that Tolstoy sired 13 children while declaring the swinishness of carnal love and the institution of marriage.  But then Rousseau had 4+ children and put each and every one of them in an orphanage, while writing the 18th century classic on permissive child education, Emile. So there's was a lot of hypocrisy around.  BTW to those who believe Mrs. Tolstoy was entirely to blame, just a reminder that Sophia copied and edited the manuscript of War and Peace (1,225 pages) seven times from beginning to end at home at night by candlelight after the children and servants had gone to bed, using an inkwell pen and sometimes requiring a magnifying glass to read her husband's notes.  

** They also often miss the rather plain reference to birth control in Ch. 23.


  1. Emma. Bovary. Sin. Everybody dies.

    Many pub patrons must still suffer from malaria, considering the number of gin & tonic prescriptions. Hmm… that could have made a story for our anthology.

    When I was growing up as a boy of field, forest, and farm, my parents purchased merthiolate and mercurochrome by the quart. I soaked up so much mercury you don’t need a thermometer to take my temperature. And codeine… I’ve never encountered cough medicine as effective as apricot codeine.

    Eve, you opened with a right-wing takedown, but for reasons entirely different from others, I’d like to prescribe a special hospital triage in hell for Rush Limbaugh. He played a significant rĂ´le in ensuring we can’t get decent painkillers in our nanny state of today. Thanks, Rush.

    Love the etching.

    1. I was a merthiolate kid, too! And I HATED it. Stung like crazy. Didn't know it contained mercury. Now I get to throw some guilt my mom's way when I give her a call this evening (if you knew my mother, you'd understand that my tossing guilt of this variety her way will not faze her in the slightest!).

  2. Eve- brilliant as usual! Such a rich feast of the besotted. No room for old favorites like the original recipe (the “secret formula”) for Coca(aine)-Cola. And then there are non-drug-based “curatives” such as “diet pills” that were in reality tapeworm heads (they latch on in the host’s intestine and let the digestive tract do the rest.). So not only addicted, but sometimes just outright weird.

    Kinda like human beings in every era. Thanks again, Eve. Great read!

  3. A fine blog. This country also saw a big wave of alcoholism and drug use post Civil War, in part a consequence of the limited pain treatments available for wounded soldiers. Laudanum was still big into the modern world, witness Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. The mother had been given it in childbirth.

  4. Great post, Eve.
    Like Leigh, I more or less grew up on mercurochrome, merthiolate...and paregoric. That may explain a lot.

    I'm still trying to comprehend "diet pills" made of tapeworm heads. Brrr...

    Amazing the euphemisms that we no longer understand (or may not have the sophistication to understand when we're young). One of my frequent assignments in my Honors American Lit classes was Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants," a brilliant example of euphemistic dialogue. I taught the class eight or nine years, and the class only figured out what the man and woman were arguing about once.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Steve & Leigh, I too was bathed in mercurochrome as a child, mainly because I screamed less than when they used iodine.
    Brian, as I've said before, my mother who was born in 1919 (or thereabouts) always said that the Coca-Cola that her father brought home from the drug store in a bucket as a Saturday night treat in the 1920s was the best she'd ever had.
    Janice, the whole thing is that we really didn't get going on making drugs absolutely illegal until after the 18th Amendment. I sometimes think that the Temperance Societies were so infuriated by the repeal that they went after every other means of dulling the pain out of sheer spite.

  7. If memory serves, Teresa Bagioli Sickles, wife of the notorious Daniel E. Sickles, was prone to use heroin to maintain her weight and impart her complexion with an etherial glow. Indeed among young women of her 'set', the practice was dubbed heroin chic.

    During the War of the Rebellion morphine was distributed liberally using the newly invented hypodermic needle. After the war, those left addicted were said to suffer from 'old soldier's disease.

  8. Well, married to Daniel who wouldn't take a little heroin? Although I'm surprised she just didn't use arsenic (sold over the counter) which made women's complexions pale and transparent as well, and belladonna, which made their irises expand to create that heavenly glazed look.

    1. It could have been something else. I'm working from memory here, but heroin chic strikes a cord. Yeahp, her husband was a piece of work.

  9. You could still take paragoric when I was a kid. Nasty stuff. Felt better, but it tasted like rotting wood. Guaranteed by flavor to prevent addiction. Had no idea it was an opiate.

  10. About 20 years ago, a frenemy who was terminally ill & on many Rx drugs, painted some liquid morphine on a cigarette for me & I smoked it. I immediately understood why so many people like morphine so much! He also gave me a little bit of DTO, deodorized tincture of opium, mixed with water. This was like a fine cognac that sneaks up on a person.

    1. I'm such an innocent babe compared to you, Elizabeth!

      When my youngest brother came to visit me in NYC, I warned him about concerts in Central Park where lids passed around might have been dipped in acid. Of course he sampled every one he could.

  11. Yeah, I've been around the block a few times, Leigh. So your brother got high! The first time I dropped acid, it was in a bottle of orange juice that was being passed around. I really should have anticipated that.

  12. Oh, Elizabeth - I grew up in California in the 60s - orange barrel, windowpane, Cambodian Red, Laotian Green, crystal meth, and old-fashioned junk. The pharmacopia was wide and colorfully named. But at least no one was pretending it was medicinal. Except for the shrooms.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>