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Champagne and the Performance of Femininity in Victorian Britain

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Graham Harding, whose recent book, Champagne in Britian 1800–1914: How the British Transformed a French Luxury, was just published by Bloomsbury Academic.

In nineteenth century Britain, champagne was gendered feminine. Poems were written to “My Lady Champagne” that described it as “wayward, soft, luscious and tender” [1]. Women went to fancy dress balls dressed as champagne bottles (the nearest male equivalent was to go as a bottle of Bass beer). The words used to describe champagne— “pretty,” “elegant,” “sparkling”—reflected a stereotypical Victorian view of femininity.

“Sparkling” is a key word here. It encapsulated what the Victorian novelist Amelia Barr called “the social friskiness—the afternoon wit—the great fun” that Society (my capital “S”) demanded of women, particularly young women [2].

Harding Title Card

Left: Woman wearing a champagne bottle dress in 1902; and a photo of a vintage champagne bottle dress. Images courtesy of the Fashion Museum of Bath.

From the mid-century on, the sparkle of a woman’s eyes was deemed to be a key part of her allure. In an 1849 essay on the barmaid, Stirling Coyne described her as the “modern Hebe, whose champagne is not more intoxicating than her oeillades” [3]. The trope of the oeillade was further celebrated in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale (1871) where he wrote of the “triple connection between Champagne that sparkles, Love that grows bolder, and Eyes whose vocabulary is without the word No” [4]. In a society where explicit communication between young women and young men was monitored and controlled, the language of the eyes was highly significant [5].

Champagne was thus a metonym for femininity and feminine allure.

But the role of champagne in women’s lives went further than the intoxicating glance across a crowded room. Sparkle was not all that Victorian society demanded of its women. They needed social skills and they needed stamina.

Social skill first. Linda Young wrote in her contribution to Table Settings: The Material Culture and Social Context of Dining, AD 1700–1900 of the “gendered bifurcation of family responsibility: men worked to make money and women spent it to represent the family honour.” Thus, spending money became “symbolic labour, manufacturing the symbolic capital of honour” [6].

Champagne in Britain Cover

Read more in Graham Harding’s new book, Champagne in Britain, 1800–1914.

Much of that symbolic capital was on display at the family dinner table where social position was asserted (often through the presence of champagne on the table) [7] and family advancement mediated through marital and commercial alliances. In this world, the hostess managed the theater of dinner, and champagne was used to get the table talking. As the wine writer Henry Vizetelly observed of an 1870s dinner party with a shy girl on one side and a monosyllabic duchess on the other, it took champagne to thaw the duchess and awake in the young lady an “astounding aptness for repartee” [8].

The young lady’s future success in first the marriage market and then as a hostess in her own right depended not just on sparkle and social skills. It also took considerable stamina.

In 1871, the Spectator magazine observed that “A young woman in good society in London nowadays is worked from three o’clock in the afternoon till three o’clock next morning, twelve consecutive hours” [9]. Afternoon tea, followed by an evening dinner and then dancing until the early hours could be a five-days-a-week occupation. No wonder that, a decade letter, the novelist Mary Braddon in Phantom Fortune could graphically describe her heroine’s “feeling of exhaustion and prostration that follow days and nights spent in society” [10].

Mrs Humphry A Word to Women Cover

Cover of Mrs. Humphry’s A Word to Women (1898). Image courtesy of Hathi Trust.

At the parties that lasted from mid-evening until “pink dawn comes creeping behind the drawn blinds,” champagne provided the stamina [11]. When Francis Anstie considered the consumption of alcohol in his 1877 book On the Uses of Wines in Health and Disease, he noted that by the time the “virtuous dancing young lady … has finished her last champagne-cup at the ball or rout, she might easily have taken nearly an ounce of ‘pure alcohol’ (perhaps 4 to 6 glassfuls)” [12].

There is little reason to doubt that such consumption was parentally approved. Certainly, by the late nineteenth century, Mrs Humphry could write in her popular advice manual, A Word to Women (1898) that “the customary glass or two of wine at lunch, and two or three glasses at dinner … can in no possible way be regarded as a bad habit. It is, in fact the usual thing in polite society, and girls are brought up to it” [13].

And champagne in particular was not just socially sanctioned but medically approved as a stimulant and restorative. “Four tablespoons of champagne very half hour” was a medical remedy for headaches. Anstie himself recommended its use in cases of throat ulceration, fever, and cases of hysteria among women (claiming it had a “calmative and regulating influence”) [14].

The marketing of Laurent-Perrier’s cocaine-infused “Coca-Tonic Champagne” exploited the idea of champagne as a necessary stimulant to social performance. Advertisements and advertorial copy which appeared in the British press in the mid-1890s suggested that the wine was “invaluable to those whose looks or constitution suffer from the exertions and excitement of a London season” [15]. A “good-looking doctor” in a 1901 short story advises his female patient that “what you want now is a fillip. I always order my young ladies champagne. I find it goes down better than anything else” [16]. Perhaps it did … but champagne had its darker side.

Digging a Grave with a Wine Glass Cover

Cover of Digging a Grave with a Wine Glass (1871). Image courtesy of Google Books.

The Spectator feared that young women—for whom rest was “impossible”—could and did take to “artificial support.” This might take the form of ball champagne, perhaps topped up as the demands continued with “strong-loaded wines or tartarized light liquors” [17]. For Braddon’s heroine the “universal panacea” pressed on her by her godmother was a glass of Heidsieck champagne … but by the end of the novel the panacea appears to have become an addiction. [18]

And, though there was sympathy as well as opprobrium in the British press for addicted women, there was a consensus that the prognosis for women was far worse than for men. Deprive men of “drinking companions” and they can recover … but “women go down faster than men and have not the strength to get up again. Every day I hear of another and another, digging their graves with a wine-glass” [19].

 

Graham Harding will explore female addiction to alcohol in general—and wine in particular—in a future Points post

 

References

[1] Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, May 29, 1886, p. 175.

[2] Quoted in Dalkeith Express, January 8, 1903.

[4] Wilkie Collins, Armadale (1871).

[5] Daryl Ogden, The Language of the Eyes, 1690–1927 (New York: SUNY Press, 2005).

[6] Linda Young, “A Historical Context for the Material Culture of the Table in the ‘Long 19th Century,'” in Table Settings: The Material Culture and Social Context of Dining, AD 1700–1900 ed. James Symonds (Oxbow Book: 2010), 136.

[7] See Anthony Trollope, Miss Mackenzie (1865).

[8] Henry Vizetelly, Facts about Champagne (1879), 362.

[9] The Spectator, February 18, 1871, p. 157.

[10] Mary Braddon, Phantom Fortune (1883), 237.

[11] Ella Hepworth Dixon, The Story of a Modern Woman (1894), 45.

[13] Mrs. Humphry, A Word to Women (1898), 64-65.

[15] Bristol Mercury, May 26, 1894, p. 6.

[16] Heywood Advertiser, October 4, 1901.

[17] The Spectator, February 18, 1871, p. 157.

[18] Braddon, Phantom Fortune, 237.

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