Freaks, Dwarfs and Boors

Thomas Keymer

  • Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental 18th Century by Simon Dickie
    Chicago, 362 pp, £29.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 226 14618 8

Compassion was invented in the 18th century, or so the story goes. Sensibility and sympathy were the wellspring of benevolent action and the glue of society (Adam Smith). There were no qualities more admirable ‘than beneficence and humanity … or whatever proceeds from a tender sympathy with others’ (David Hume). Fashionable poems deplored slavery and child labour, and wrung tears from the public on behalf of the distressed. Sterne assured his readers that his purpose in A Sentimental Journey (1768) ‘was to teach us to love the world and our fellow creatures better than we do – so it runs most upon those gentler passions and affections, which aid so much to it.’ Novels like The Histories of Some of the Penitents in the Magdalen House (1759) raised funds for foundling hospitals, charity schools, refuges for repentant prostitutes or bankrupted merchants. Shortly before his death in 1791, John Wesley looked back on the century as one in which ‘benevolence and compassion toward all the forms of human woe have increased in a manner not known before, from the earliest ages of the world.’

Not everyone was sympathetic to forms of woe – especially to deformities. In Cruelty and Laughter, Simon Dickie mounts a compelling case against what he calls ‘the politeness-sensibility paradigm’, by resurrecting a jeering counter-discourse that revelled in human suffering and physical affliction. His point about the sentimental 18th century is partly a simple one about how to read sources. It’s naive to take all the noise about feeling at face value, and constant exhortations to sympathy may mark its absence as much as its presence, or at least an anxiety that benevolence was fragile and fleeting. There’s no need, after all, to display notices forbidding spitting unless people are spitting a lot, and by the same token ‘the strident reforming discourse of this age – all the charity sermons and periodical moralising, the sentimental novels about helpless virgins and gloomy old soldiers – surely attests less to the triumph of sensibility than to its failures, to the endurance of older and less sympathetic pleasures.’

Dickie painstakingly retrieves the older pleasures from fugitive jestbooks and trashy ephemera: an archive little studied not only because of low survival rates – the books he describes were read to pieces – but also because of its content. With their unrepentant nastiness and gloating delight in other people’s pain, the ubiquitous jestbooks gleefully up-end the official values of the age. The humanitarian sensibilities we associate with the Enlightenment are nowhere to be seen. In compilations with titles like England’s Witty and Ingenious Jester, The Buck’s Pocket Companion and Fun for the Parlour, blind women are walked into walls, crutches are stolen from one-legged beggars, dwarfs are picked up and tossed from windows and starving paupers are fed shit pies. Some of the most rebarbative jests, often whole sequences of them, reappear across the decades. Even works like The Delicate Jester; or, Wit and Humour Divested of Ribaldry (a lucus a non lucendo kind of title) reprint them without any softening. Stale collections of callous anecdotes were gratuitously freshened up with celebrity names: The Jests of Beau Nash, for example, first published in 1763, used the recently deceased dandy to taunt a hapless succession of invalids. ‘One Day in the Grove, [Nash] joined some Ladies, and asking one of them, who was crooked, whence she came?’ one of the more innocuous gags begins. ‘She replied, Strait from London. Indeed, Madam, said he, then you must have been confoundedly warpt by the Way.

To what extent can we put these unendearing but popular texts down to cultural lag, to the persistence of the coarsely medieval in the age of reason? Dickie acknowledges that many of the jests are more or less directly drawn from Stuart or even Tudor sources, and no doubt had antecedents in the oral tradition. He’s concerned, he says, to establish ‘the persistence … of the old comic representations of low life’, and long lines of transmission can often be traced. Fielding, who outraged the critics by plundering contemporary jestbooks, included in Tom Jones the anecdote of a felon mocked from the bench with malevolent puns about hanging, which goes back to a Jacobean source, which attributes it in turn to a 15th-century jester, the possibly apocryphal John Scogin. Yet Dickie also insists that 18th-century jestbooks weren’t just blasts from a barbarous past. They were produced in greater numbers than ever, replenished by new material that statistically outweighed the old. With their pointedly contemporary settings and reference points, their topical jokes about London theatre, parliamentary business and the latest fashions, many went out of their way to flaunt their modernity. New compilations were still appearing into the 19th century, and it was not until 1836 that the much reprinted Joe Miller’s Jests discarded its most scabrous material (about 20 per cent of the book), recognising ‘the greater delicacy observed in modern society and conversation’.

It would also be wrong to see the jestbooks as an expression of plebeian rebelliousness, a cackling affront to the pieties of the elite. In what until now has been the standard (indeed pretty much the sole) account of the phenomenon, Ronald Paulson characterised jestbooks as writing from below, as labouring-class culture defiantly thumbing its nose at polite taste. Inexpensive chapbooks of the kind produced by the Dicey family in the middle decades of the century, and distributed via a ramshackle network of itinerant peddlers and provincial booksellers, seem to invite this approach. But even these were top-down productions, at best indirect and uncertain evidence of a folk mentalité. And even the humblest farthing chapbooks were conservative in their depiction of social hierarchy. Their content overlapped with that of the mainstream jestbooks, which were conspicuously upmarket productions, well printed on good paper, decorated with engraved frontispieces and rococo ornaments, and priced so as to exclude all but genteel readers with disposable income. The content matched the price point: uppity tailors bilked by fashionable clients, dim footmen humiliated by boorish sparks, the shiftless poor getting their comeuppance from high-born pranksters. Evidence survives in sale catalogues, library stamps and personal inscriptions of strong demand among the elite for works of this kind. They were consumed not only by dilettantes or libertines, like Horace Walpole, John Wilkes and James Boswell, but also by landowners, clerics and society hostesses – Hester Thrale, Samuel Johnson’s confidante, owned several jestbooks and comic miscellanies.

In this context it becomes easier – though still not entirely easy – to understand the characteristic stance of the jestbooks towards class and gender. Some anecdotes – not many – stage scenes of plebeian defiance, including a vigorous subgenre of jokes about defecating peasants and grossed-out gentry, distant antecedents of the now celebrated poop-pie scene in The Help. Yet even when they get to talk back, the reeking yokels and pilfering vagrants – sometimes identified by race as Taffies or Teagues – are left in their ditches at the end of each joke, while the bucks and sparks ride on. More often it’s the gentleman who gets the last laugh, most raucously when he occupies the bench. A hapless felon protests he stole not a horse but a halter, and is promised a noose in return; another says poverty made him destined to steal, and is told he is destined to hang. Dickie has little time for the Marxism of the E.P. Thompson era, but many of these (uniformly unfunny) courtroom jests recall the world of Albion’s Fatal Tree, with its smug, self-interested judges and their crushing response to property crime. Wit usually travels one way: from drolling judge to desperate malefactor, mirroring the imbalance of power in practice. Even the rare exceptions give the punchline to power. In the 1721 edition of Cambridge Jests, a condemned thief tries to charm his way to a commuted sentence: ‘my Lord, your Name is Bacon, and mine is Hog, and those two have ever been so near related, that they cannot be separated. Ay but, replied Judge Bacon, you and I cannot be Kindred, except you be hanged; for Hog is not Bacon, until it be hanged.’ At a time when capital trials and public executions were rowdy spectacles, some of the same stories of judicial waggery crop up in both jestbooks and trial reports. In 1772 an anthology called The Humours of the Old Bailey; or, Justice Shaking Her Sides – a single copy survives in the Guildhall Library – lifted its material from the Old Bailey Sessions Papers, with no changes needed to indicate the comedy.

Then there are the rape jokes. Most are as plodding and unlovely as the hanging jokes, and none has the saving dexterity of Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, where a gangster meets sluttish Laetitia Snap, ‘and proceeded so warmly, that, to imitate his Actions with the Rapidity of our Narration, he in a few Minutes ravished this fair Creature, or at least would have ravished her, if she had not, by a timely Compliance, prevented him.’ More typical is a widely recycled gag in which a woman is asked in court if she resisted her attacker, and says she of course screamed out: ‘Ay, said one of the Witnesses, but that was nine months after.’ Historians have demonstrated the near impunity of well-connected rapists in the period, but convictions were occasionally secured, and English courts were probably readier than most to take prosecutions seriously. At least that was Casanova’s view when he visited in 1764, and prudently resolved not to rape anyone until back on the Continent. Dickie suggests that elite male anxieties about extortion may underlie the popularity of rape jokes, just as social unrest, including a crime wave following mass demobilisation in 1748, may explain the vicious tone of courtroom humour in general.

This was no clear-cut war of the sexes, however. Women not only consumed but energetically produced jokes about victims enjoying rape or being humiliated in court. Jestbook assumptions are central to works like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s ‘Virtue in Danger’, a sarcastic ballad on a real-life society case of 1721, and to the startling premise of Eliza Haywood’s novel of 1727, The Lucky Rape. Decades later more decorous women writers were still using the basic tropes of misogynist humour. Comic scenarios about scheming maidservants and bogus chastity were routine in the novels of Charlotte Lennox, who once acted on her feeling that hussies were there to be beaten, and had to defend herself at the Middlesex Sessions. Even Jane Austen said of a neighbour’s late-term miscarriage: ‘I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.’

Once one starts to look, revelry in suffering is everywhere to be seen. Dickie’s unflinching chapter on ‘Cripples, Hunchbacks and the Limits of Sympathy’ sets out a dismal procession of ‘deformity genres’: comic poems about freaks and dwarfs, ranging in style from mock consolation to malicious lampoon; theatre hits from Vanbrugh’s Esop (1697) to John O’Keeffe’s The Little Hunchback (1789), some of which featured ‘crutch dances’ by ludicrous troupes of amputees. Sometimes disability stood in for something else: Esop was on one level a defence of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The hunchbacks, however, can’t be explained away. Dickie deftly keeps them in view by retaining in his own prose the unsanitised language of his sources, as did one of the few voices raised in protest at the time, that of William Hay, a self-described hunchback whose Deformity: An Essay (1752) described the insults he received daily and advised his peers to avoid public places. There’s no trace of the self-righteous outrage sometimes turned on the thought-crimes of the past. The most Dickie allows himself is a shudder of donnish distaste: ‘One wonders how anyone could have laughed.’

Yet laugh they did. Dickie calls one chapter ‘The Forgotten Bestsellers of Early English Fiction’, with a glance at Robert Darnton’s Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, but in a spirit of grim retrieval instead of heartfelt recuperation. The thriving subgenre of ‘ramble novels’ with titles like Adventures of a Rake and Memoirs of the Noted Buckhorse has none of the subversive richness of Darnton’s libertine bestsellers, and most are no more than episodic vehicles in which a boorish prankster-hero causes havoc and inflicts humiliation wherever he goes. Far from avoiding these novels, elite readers went at them with relish: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu cheerfully acknowledged her taste for ‘Trash, Lumber, &c.’ and binged on one season’s output in just a few days. The sales of these gloatingly anti-sentimental efforts didn’t come close to the ‘virtue in distress’ novels, the great type of which, Richardson’s Pamela, is known to have run to three thousand copies (then a huge figure), and sold out within a few weeks – and that was just one edition. Print runs of ramble novels were no doubt much smaller, and title-page claims about edition number were often false. But it is certainly a subgenre whose significance has been missed. There’s not much proto-feminism to champion in Memoirs of Lydia Tongue-Pad and Juliana Clack-It, and no celebration of diversity in Adventures of Shelim O’Blunder.

Yet in their light the canon looks different. Smollett’s trademark cruelty makes new sense, as does Fielding’s double-edged depiction of Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews: not only an exemplar of practical benevolence, but also, in the novel’s famous ‘roasting’ scene, a victim of farcical humiliation and torment, a figure of fun. Some of the most hostile mockery of disability came from writers who struggled with it themselves. Fresh from a stage lampoon of Swift’s one-legged bookseller George Faulkner, the actor-playwright Samuel Foote fell from his horse and lost a leg, provoking sly jokes from Johnson about ‘depeditation’ and ironic consolation poems with missing (metrical) feet. Foote replied with a new comedy, The Lame Lover, and took the title role, Sir Luke Limp, himself. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, disfigured by smallpox, traded insults in print with Pope, whose body – or, as she put it, ‘wretched little Carcass’ – had been stunted and twisted in infancy by Pott’s Disease. Christopher Smart, whose Jubilate Agno memorably deplores the vilification he received as a supposed lunatic – ‘For silly fellow! silly fellow! is against me’ – was an indefatigable collector and disseminator of deformity jokes. The famously hideous actor-manager Theophilus Cibber turned his ugliness into a lifelong performance, hamming it up as Pistol, Abel Drugger and the role devised for him by Smart, Mynheer Von Poop-Poop Broomstickado. It may say something for the strength of sentimentalism that it generated counter-impulses of such violence.