Literary Drinkers by Pete Bunten
If you enjoy this extract from Literary Drinkers, try the articles on John Clare and P G Wodehouse - and why not buy a copy for yourself or a friend or two?
The conscientious student of past copies of The Good Beer Guide will know that in Dorchester in Dorset there was a brewery that was itself a tribute to the latest in our list of literary drinkers, Thomas Hardy. In fact, on the desk in front of me is a small bottle, numbered P17727, of Thomas Hardy's Ale, brewed in 1987 by Eldridge Pope. It claims to be the strongest beer in Britain and to mature in the bottle over at least 25 years. I must get round to drinking it soon.
Hardy was a friend of the then director of Eldridge Pope, so it is perhaps not surprising that his novels have much to say about beer and cider drinking. In a letter to a fellow writer, Hardy admitted that he had 'never found alcohol helpful to novel writing in any degree'. This is not the same thing, of course, as failing to appreciate its other virtues. Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That describes how during a visit to Hardy, the writer 'grew enthusiastic in praise of cyder, which he had drunk since a boy, as the finest medicine he knew.'
Hardy's poem 'Great Things', a lyrical celebration of what makes life worth living, appropriately begins with cider:
Sweet cyder is a great thing,
It is perhaps sadly appropriate that some of the beers named after Hardy no longer exist, since Hardy himself was a chronicler of cultures and societies teetering on the cliff edge of the past.
A great thing to me'
Spinning down to Weymouth town
By Ridgeway thirstily
Some critics have argued that the world of Hardy's novels steadily darkened during his writing career. It could also be argued, interestingly, that the part that drinking plays in the novels also becomes increasingly sombre.
Writers like Flora Thompson (Lark Rise to Candleford) have attested to the significance that the drinking of ale had in agricultural communities, where long hard days in the fields created gargantuan thirsts. Then, as now, pubs also lay at the heart of the village community. In Far from the Madding Crowd, Warren's Malthouse provides an important social centre for the villagers, where they drink warmed cider from the 'God-Forgive-Me', a two-handled tall mug, so named 'because its size makes any given toper feel ashamed of himself when he sees its bottom in drinking it empty'. Later in the novel, with unfortunate consequences, Joseph Poorgrass, while on an important errand, is seduced by the charms of 'the old inn Buck's Head'. There he finds the familiar encouragement of fellow drinkers: 'drink, Joseph, and don't restrain yourself', and is offered the unassailable argument that 'after all, many people haven't the gift of enjoying a wet, and since we be highly favoured with a power that way, we should make the most o't'.
In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, however, the heroine's long downfall begins when her father, bursting with pride at his newly discovered knightly lineage, gets aristocratically plastered at Rolliver's Inn. Michael Henchard, the tragic hero of The Mayor of Casterbridge finds himself at the beginning of the novel in a refreshment tent at a village fair. He foolishly allows his wife to turn him from a tent which sells 'Good Home-brewed Ale and Cyder' to a 'furmity booth'. Here he mixes the horrible stuff with rum and having passed through the usual stages of drunkenness proceeds to sell off his wife and daughter to the highest bidder. Rather an excessive punishment, one feels.
Finally, the grim tale of Jude Fawley, in Jude the Obscure is not much lightened by the central character's involvement with strong drink. At an early stage, he is seduced by the manipulative Arabella, the barmaid of The Lamb and Flag. Jude's comparative innocence at that stage of his career may be judged by his remark that 'somehow it seems odd to come to a public house for beer on a Sunday evening'. With such an attitude his eventual entrapment comes as no surprise.
But to return on a more positive note to the excellent bottle of Thomas Hardy's Ale, which I really must open before long: on the bottle is a quotation from Hardy's The Trumpet Major. It describes Dorchester's strong beer, and may be taken as a conclusive illustration of Hardy's understanding and appreciation of drinking matters: 'It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste, but finally, rather heady'. No wine buff could come up with a more lusciously evocative description.