He ate peas with a knife

John Sutherland

  • Douglas Jerrold: 1803-57 by Michael Slater
    Duckworth, 340 pp, £25.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 7156 2824 0

The tenth and central chapter of Michael Slater’s biography is entitled ‘Jerrold, Dickens, Thackeray’. This, as Slater reminds us (often), is the company his contemporaries expected Douglas Jerrold to keep. Some partisans might even have thought Slater right to put him first. Dickens and Thackeray were pall-bearers at Jerrold’s funeral and, according to their contemporary David Masson, ‘the three do form a triad so that it is hardly possible to discuss the merits of any one of them without referring to the other two.’ Posterity has found it very possible. And, richly informative as Slater’s biography is (he has been at it for thirty years), critical resuscitation of Jerrold is unlikely. He is doomed to remain in the obscure sump of Victorian writing, famous for a lifetime only.

Jerrold was born in 1803, the son of a ‘melancholy comedian’ and his second wife, an actress. Few records survive of his childhood, and little is known about the family’s circumstances. In their place Slater reconstructs the seedy world of the Minors – the companies that scraped a livelihood outside the orbit of the licensed London theatres. It was a nomadic upbringing. A dull boy, at the age of nine Douglas could barely read. The only school prize he ever won, it pleased him to recall, was for the largest ringworm.

In 1813 he was sent to sea as a ‘boy entrant’, to serve on HMS Namur, a 74-gun man-of-war. The vessel’s captain was Jane Austen’s younger brother, Charles (there are no references to Douglas in the Austen family correspondence). He entered the Royal Navy not as a cabin-boy but as officer material, and was (probably) instructed in reading, writing and seamanship by the ship’s schoolteachers. He had, however, been thrust into what he called the ‘moral mildew of a man-of-war’ at a vulnerable age. The Namur saw no active service, but it was charged with transporting Waterloo casualties back to English hospitals and, according to his son, the ‘raw stumps and festering wounds’ made a horrific impression on the 12-year-old. He had witnessed not war, but the consequences of war. He was, for the rest of his life, fiercely anti-militaristic.

In 1815 Jerrold left the Navy. With the final victory over Napoleon his career prospects were diminished and it may well have been, as Slater surmises, that he was disgusted by what he had seen in the service, particularly the flogging of men and the caning, or worse, of boys. It may also have been that his increasingly distressed family needed him to pitch in. For a while – and still, at 13, a child – Douglas was apprenticed to a London printer (the trade was, notoriously, a nursery for radicals) before drifting back into the unlicensed theatrical world. In 1824 he married. Little is known of his wife. She ‘may’, Slater hazards, have been an actress like his mother. She may have been a scold like Jerrold’s most famous fictional character, Mrs Caudle, and given to ‘curtain lectures’ (bed-time nagging). There were two children in two years and ‘hunted pauperdom’ for ten.

Just before he married, Jerrold began the most important friendship of his life. Laman Blanchard, a glazier’s son, was, like Jerrold, a hopeful writer. He was possessed of ‘dark, handsome, Jewish features’ and a melancholy disposition (in 1845, in a fit of depression, he would cut his throat). Slater suggests that they had an ‘intensely romantic’, by which I understand homosexual, relationship in which Blanchard assumed a ‘wifely’ role and Jerrold was reciprocally ‘husband-like’. There is little to support this, beyond the conventional warmth of the letters reprinted in the pious memorial written by Jerrold’s son, who was named after Blanchard.

Jerrold had his first notable success in 1829 with Black Eyed Susan, a nautical melodrama. He wrote one other hit play, The Rent Day. But in the absence of copyright protection (which would not come in until the 1840s) it was hard even for a popular playwright to keep body and soul together. In the early 1830s, Jerrold drifted into penny-a-line journalism. It was, like everything he had so far tried his hand at, a ‘low’ occupation: ‘below street sweeping as a trade’, according to Carlyle. But after the agitations of the 1820s and the Reform Bill, there was a market for radical and comic writing. Jerrold was fluent, sharp-witted, and had the right populist voice for an angry and insurgent era. He made a small name for himself but did not get rich – or even, most of the time, get by. Throughout the 1830s he was harried by duns and on one occasion fled to France to avoid arrest.

Jerrold’s breakthrough came with the founding of Punch in 1841. For five years (until Thackeray out-starred him) he was the paper’s lead humorist. His hallmark contributions were the 67 savagely sarcastic ‘Q Papers’. Week in, week out Jerrold scourged the Government, the Monarchy, the Army. He hated uniforms, bigwigs, aristocrats and, above all, judges and law-makers. A scathing article of 1843 on the case of Henry Bull (in the rival Pictorial Times) is typical. An elderly, insignificant man, Bull was imprisoned for ten days for begging in the London streets with his little daughter. He had absconded from the workhouse because he couldn’t bear to be separated from his child, ‘like cattle in the pens at Smithfield’. The magistrate’s heartlessness provoked Jerrold’s scorn: Bull ‘ought to have known the penalty of his poverty. He should have remembered that he was a pauper; a human weed; so much human offal; a foul noisome creature, the modern leper; the blotched Lazarus of our highway; the nuisance to be put down, got rid of, swept aside like the ordure of beasts.’ Dickens’s ‘Move on!’ chapter in Bleak House is anodyne by comparison.

Punch, even in its radical infancy, was never entirely happy with Jerrold’s ultraism. His biggest circulation-boosters for the magazine were the apolitical ‘Mrs Caudle’ papers, which appeared in 1845. Slater calls this year ‘the summit’ of his career. But Jerrold chafed at being merely a comic writer on a comic paper and complained to Dickens in 1846: ‘I am convinced that the world will get tired (at least I hope so) of this eternal guffaw at all things. After all, life has something serious in it.’ Dickens, who disliked Punch, as he tended to dislike all successful rivals, wrote back: ‘I feel exactly as you do.’ Thackeray did not feel the same way. In 1846, he was enjoying an even greater triumph than Jerrold with his ‘Mr Snob’ papers. He was at the same time urging the magazine to follow a mellower, less radical line. Thackeray wanted Punch to be ‘gentlemanly’.

Jerrold was no gent. Years later it was recalled at the Punch table that he had mortified Thackeray because ‘he ate peas with a knife and therefore was not fit company for him.’ Thackeray, the Charterhouse and Trinity toff, was affronted by the rough and ready manners of the lower deck. There were larger issues at stake too. The two writers strongly disagreed about the Sikh Wars. Thackeray, with his Anglo-Indian background, heartily approved of the annexation of the Punjab (‘a noble deed’) and the massacre that accompanied it. Jerrold was appalled at ‘folks who are as glad the Sikhs are slaughtered as though they’d been no more than so many locusts’. Above all the two men disagreed as to the ‘tone’ Punch should adopt. As Thackeray later recalled, ‘Jerrold and I had a sort of war and I came off conqueror.’ An appropriately gentlemanly tone was installed at Bouverie Street. Punches were henceforth pulled.

The conquered writer took his radicalism elsewhere, founding Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine and Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper. They were not successful – at least, not on Punch’s scale. The times were changing. Revolutions on the Continent had terrified the British middle classes. The working classes, after the Chartist debacle, were neutered. Jerrold’s historical moment had passed. Nor did he have the energy for the exhausting routines of editorship. Since the 1830s he had been afflicted by ‘rheumatism’ – a vaguely diagnosed condition that particularly affected his eyes. Slater does not speculate, but like Wilkie Collins’s ‘gout’ (which reduced his eyeballs to bags of blood), Dickens’s ‘little malady’ and Thackeray’s stricture of the urethra (which made his later years hell), Jerrold’s disorder may have been venereal in origin. Whatever its nature, it broke him down. Mrs Gaskell described him, in his last decade, as ‘a very little, almost deformed man with grey flowing hair, and very fine eyes’. He died in 1857, still in his early fifties.

Jerrold was renowned as the wittiest conversationalist in England. Relatively few of his ‘impromptus’ survive, and they tend, on the page, to have a deadening Victorian archness about them. At his friend W.H. Wills’s wedding he instructed the bride and groom to ‘go off at once and make their wills’. He liked the half-profits contract, he observed, ‘because it never leads to division between author and publisher’. Idly picking up a pencil, he observed it to be the exact counterpart of John Forster: ‘short, thick, and full of lead’. A luckless would-be comrade once told him that, politically, they were rowing in the same boat: ‘but not with the same skulls,’ Jerrold replied. The most durable relics of his wit concern his fellow authors. ‘There is no God,’ he proclaimed, ‘and Harriet Martineau is his prophet.’ Dickens, he said, ‘had the showman instinct so strongly developed that if you only gave him three square yards of carpet, he would tumble on that like a street acrobat’. ‘I have known Thackeray for 18 years,’ he once sighed, ‘and I don’t know him yet.’

Victorians liked to see Jerrold, Dickens and Thackeray as scourges of the age: not just holding up the satirist’s mirror, but wielding his corrective lash. Each of them was fascinated by the whip, but in different ways. At the age of 11 Jerrold was obliged, with the rest of the Namur’s company, to witness a shipmate called Michael Ryan (Slater has discovered the name) receive 18 lashes from the bosun’s mate with the cat-o’-nine-tails: ‘a particularly vicious instrument consisting of nine strips of leather bound to a handle with lead shot sewn to the ends of the thongs’. Jerrold later recalled that he had been ‘frequently’ required to see this ‘cold-blooded and brutalising operation’. He may also, Slater believes, have been present at the even more brutal spectacle of delinquent sailors being ‘flogged through the fleet’: that is, whipped alongside every ship in harbour – a punishment which often, after five hundred or so strokes, resulted in death.

The whip symbolised everything Jerrold wanted to overthrow in England. A debate in the House of Commons in July 1846, after a soldier had been flogged to death, elicited a typical diatribe. Unsurprisingly, Member after Member had risen to justify flogging as one of the great British institutions. This ‘wisdom’, Jerrold observed, was

clubbed to by both sailors and landmen in the House of Commons; for a great part of Monday evening was devoted to the praises of the cat-o’-nine-tails. The eulogies were so glowing, so ingenious – the natural and social benefits of knotted cord administered by the boatswain’s mate till the flesh blackens and the blood gushes, so deep and manifold that, after the eloquence, the fancy, bestowed upon the scourge, we do not despair to hear sweet things said of the rack.

The soldier who died, Frederick White, had attacked his sergeant in the Seventh Hussars with a poker. He was sentenced to 150 lashes, from which he died. At his inquest, the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Whyte, claimed that Farrier Evans (as in the Navy, the punishment was traditionally delegated to those with the brawniest arms, here the blacksmith) ‘hardly struck at all. He is a nervous, mild dispositioned man, and always flogs lightly.’ As a result of the uproar – which even the flagellomaniacs at Westminster could not talk down – the maximum permitted sentence in the Armed Services was reduced to 50 strokes.

Thackeray wrote about the event in his Punch paper on the ‘Snob Civilian’ (1 August 1846). He initially took a Jerroldian line on White’s crucifixion (as critics including Jerrold had called it). ‘Do you know as much about the Army and the wants of the soldier, as Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington?’ Mr Snob enquired of the Punch reader:

If the Great Captain of the Age considers flogging as one of the wants of the Army, what business have you to object. You’re not flogged. To lash fellow-creatures like hounds may be contrary to your ideas of decency, morals and justice; to submit Christian men to punishments brutal, savage, degrading, ineffectual may be revolting to you; but to suppose that such an eminent philanthropist as the great Captain of the Age would allow such penalties to be inflicted on the troops if they could be done away with, is absurd.

But then, in his usual enigmatic way, in his next week’s paper (‘On Radical Snobs’) Thackeray turned to attack those, like Jerrold, who had attacked the Army; and, when he came to reprint his series as The Book of Snobs in 1848, he didn’t include the article.

Thackeray was, like other English gentlemen, in two minds on the question of flogging. His formative experiences had been at prep and public school – institutions that he renamed in his writing Dr Birch’s Academy, the Swishtail Seminary and Slaughterhouse (i.e. Charterhouse, then located alongside Smithfield’s shambles, off Fleet Street). When he arrived at Charterhouse, the first thing said to him by an older boy was: ‘Come into the bog and frig me.’ For the ten-year-old, corporal punishment seems to have been mixed in with the sexual excitement of the privy.

Of the triad, Dickens appears to have had the sanest view on the whip. He hated it, of course, but on the evidence in the novels his formative experiences were domestic. The beating of David Copperfield by his wicked stepfather, Mr Murdstone, is very much more sadistic than the pantomime flagellomania of the schoolmaster Wackford Squeers.

In London’s phone boxes (particularly those, it’s interesting to note, around the Inns of Court) ladies of the night still offer ‘Strict Victorian Punishment’. Not that the respectable classes think of it, even now, as a ‘vice’. In December 2002, a group of 40 independent Christian schools lost their legal battle to have punitive caning, banned since 1998 on human rights grounds, restored as one of the privileges of an English education. Jerrold died too soon.