Rob Hardy on books

 

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A Look Beneath the Refined Eighteenth Century

 

 

Rob Hardy

 

If you had lived in mid-eighteenth century England, you would undoubtedly have heard the joke, and probably many times, about that jolly fellow Beau Nash, who had many tales told of him, some of which may even have been true. One day, this particular one goes, in the grove, he joined some ladies, and asked one of them, who had a crooked back, whence she came? "Straight from London," came the reply, whereupon the irrepressible Nash rejoindered, "Indeed, Madam, then you must have been confoundedly warped along the way." The story was told and retold, and printed in jestbooks over and over again because they shamelessly plagiarized each other. It brought great laughter, but a couple of centuries later, we are likely to be embarrassed by the callousness of the joke; one does not make fun of hunchbacks. Not only that, but we have the impression that eighteenth century British society had refined manners, polite interpersonal dealings, and Christian concern for all. Not a bit of it, if you look at the jokes and stories recalled in Cruelty & Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century (University of Chicago Press) by professor of English Simon Dickie. It was not just those with crooked backs that were the butts of jokes. The distasteful subjects of humor Dickie catalogues include amputees, blind people, rape victims, the indigent, dwarves, the deaf, squinters, stammerers, Welshmen, and many more. Dickie's astonishing work looks at the profuse books of jokes, the forgotten novels, and even the trial records of the age, and finds that the comparative politeness we find, say, in the novels of Jane Austen seems a completely different world. "This was not a polite world," writes Dickie, "but 'an impolite world that talked much about politeness.'" The book is an eye-opener. 

 

 

 

The lack of politeness, and even more, the aggressive and cruel humor, we might think were restricted to the lower classes, the sorts that would buy cheap joke-books that were passed endlessly around and plagiarized by the next printer wanting to make a few shillings. Wrong, wrong. The jestbooks quoted here, like The Merry Medley; or, A Christmass-Box for Gay Gallants, and Good Companions weren't pulps, but were relatively expensive texts. They were often put out by the same printers who published classics, sacred literature, or sentimental novels. They were "far beyond the reach of a popular audience. They were produced in enormous quantities, with dozens of new volumes appearing each year." Dickie shows evidence that women enjoyed these jokes and joke-books just as much as men did. What is more, the plots of the jokes in the joke-books showed up in more refined literature. The "deformed wedding" was one of the themes, with, say, a "one-eyed Irish shepherd named Phelim O'Gimlet [who] describes his torments courting Margaret (Moggy) Timbertoe, a wooden-leg shepherdess." There are deformed weddings in penny jestbooks, and also in the famous Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett (who frequently makes appearances in these pages). 

 

 

 

There were "deformity comedies," plays with a plot founded on the wooden leg, dwarfism, or hunched back of the main character. For example, in The Little Hunchback, Crumpy is "dropped down a chimney, thrown down a flight of stairs, stunned by a falling flowerpot, and almost choked on a fish bone." The play was popular enough, and "mild" enough that a cardboard cutout set was made for children's toy theaters. Within comedies, or used as an intermission entertainment, could be seen "crutch dances," in which humpbacks and amputees danced around, or "elephant capers" of a grossly fat dancer. A duke gave a dinner for stutterers, ending in a brawl with each guest convinced the others were mimicking him. Gentlemen would hire waiters with a limp or a tremor, and then bawl them out for spilling the food or kick them downstairs. They would also organize races for the lame, the one-legged, or the obese. It wasn't just the poor lower class who would be ridiculed for their disabilities. The Methodist preacher George Whitefield had a severe squint, and was nicknamed by everyone Dr. Squintum. "The squint provided Whitefield's enemies with an irresistible emblem of hypocrisy; his right eye might look up to heaven, but the left looked about the earth with lust."  

 

 

 

Nonetheless, those who were privileged had particular enjoyment laughing at the torments of those who were not. A joke might start, "A Nobleman gave an old Servant of his two Boxes on the Ear..." The legal right to strike servants was in force until 1861. Everyone accepted that beaus and bucks who were out after a good time would drink and then assault their inferiors as a natural way to improve their own spirits. It was fun to tell an old woman that sixpence had been dropped in a puddle and watch her go after the nonexistent coin. Summoning a midwife for a lady who had no need of one was quite the giggle. Larger hoaxes were also a good time. In August 1737, a gentleman rode wildly from Fulham to London, yelling to all the turnpike keepers to throw open the gates as he was an official messenger bearing news of the sudden death of Queen Caroline. Not only did linen drapers order up a store of black cloth as the false news spread, the fellow made it through all the turnpikes without paying a penny. The rustic countryman found sleeping was always a good target. In 1733, the Duke of Richmond and his chums found a drunken pauper sleeping under a hedge, picked his pocket without waking him, and then took the money to town to party on. "One struggles to understand," writes Dickie, "a world in which it could be funny to rob a pauper of his last resources, to torment an indigent with nowhere else to sleep, defecate, eat, or make love. And yet it was so." 

 

 

 

Among the most unpleasant founts of humor here are jokes having to do with rape. "Rape jokes are everywhere one looks: in cheap pamphlets and song sheets as well as more literary texts. The same dirty jokes show up in ballad operas and then again as asides in otherwise morbid tragedies. As they migrate across genres, these jokes take every possible form; the only constant, in fact, is that the woman is always lying." There were jokes about how rape trials were conducted. One is that a squire was brought to trial for rape, after making good on his threat that if he caught a tenant's daughter stealing wood again, he would "punish her in a way most agreeable to his wishes." The courtroom was full of women, and the jovial judge advises him to find some other way of protecting his wood, or otherwise, "believe me that the ladies in the gallery will not leave you a stick in your hedge." This was not far from the actual trial transcripts; Dickie has found that there was levity in the courtroom, and appreciative laughter, for a crime that easily leant itself to guffaws. A witness for the defendant in an Old Bailey proceeding, for instance, was on the stand so that he could insult the woman who had brought charges. "She is a very vile girl," he testified. "I have seen a young man upon her with his breeches down, and her cloaths up, and another man lie by the side of her in a stable. I have laid with her a great many times myself." It is not surprising that rape cases were seldom brought to court, and once there, seldom were decided in the victim's favor. 

 

 

 

There is a fine chapter here on the jokes and pranks undergone by the longsuffering Parson Adams in Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, showing how Fielding was to use familiar anti-cleric humor. Dickie has also surveyed far less important or familiar novels of the period ("shameless rubbish") that he seems, in some instances, to have enjoyed. This is one of the liveliest of academic books because of the nature of the subject. Dickie gives plenty of examples of humor, and a reader can enjoy laughing at the ones of lesser cruelty, and can enjoy astonishment that the crueler jokes were ever considered funny. If you think you know the eighteenth century, you will not look at it the same way after reading this book. 

 

 

 

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