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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in