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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, January 28th, 2003




A review by Benjamin Schwarz

This harrowing chronicle of England's early-eighteenth-century "gin craze" portrays a society in the grip of an epidemic. Cheap, highly addictive, and deadly, "Madame Geneva," as the drink was called, offered comfort and oblivion to London's slum dwellers ("kill grief" was another of its many nicknames), but the middle and upper classes also succumbed to it. The results were catastrophic — the number of cases of fetal alcohol syndrome alone had to have been appalling. This is the second book in the past year on the subject, and it just edges out Jessica Warner's Craze. Dillon's overheated prose suits this tale of mania, particularly in his depiction of the chaotic London underworld, which is more absorbing than his well-researched and involved account of the often venal (no surprise) efforts to control, regulate, or prohibit the drink. Far less successful is his epilogue, in which he draws facile and anachronistic parallels between those efforts on the one hand, and American Prohibition and the war on drugs on the other. Will historians please stop tacking on superficial and "relevant" — and, inevitably, "progressive" — public-policy lessons that mar their careful reconstructions of the past, a notoriously foreign country?

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