Sunday, July 15, 2007

Book Review: City of Laughter

Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century London
Vic Gatrell 2006

As a former professional satirist, (an odd thing to put on a job description)
“So what do you do”,
“Oh I’m a satirist”
I have been looking forward to reading this major tome since its publication. A big heavy book in many ways, written by an author who at times seems to force himself to remember he is an academic historian rather than a Georgian print seller himself. The book is filled by a moral ambivalence that rather suits its subject matter.
Gatrell describes his feelings about the book graphically,

“In the first place, writing City of Laughter has been thera­peutic and cheering. It enabled me to recover from the awesome business, before it, of writing about the history of public hanging. The stories in my The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (1994) are grim, poig­nant, and anger-inducing. The images I discuss in Laughter are jolly, bawdy, and funny. “

And some. The book for starters is packed with over 300 illustrations from the period 1770 through 1830 (though annoyingly many are too small, the intricacies of their detail left a blur despite the print quality –we are left to have them translated by the author). They run the whole range of popular concern (well after discounting classical history, formal portraiture and the so called higher planes of the Royal Academy – thus in artistic style burlesque, caricature, pornography, scatology , and parody; whilst in subject matter, politics, scandal, sexual relations, the theatre, London life, drinking, more drinking, libertinism, more drinking, clubs, boxing, more drinking and to round it off sex and drinking.

The book in a way can be read as a more scholarly and erudite companion piece to Ben Wilson’s recent Decency and Disorder. While Wilson concentrates on the societal, Gatrell hones into its most lasting and public face the visual satire.

On the whole this book is a great deal of fun, dripping with anecdote, and punctuated by scholarly asides on things like the history of attitudes to laughter (it just wasn’t done. Very common laughter!). Every now and then the Olympian pose of the authors slips, here discussing the mania amongst the rich for outlandish bets,

“This wondrous entry still survives in Brook’s betting book: ‘Ld. Cholmondeley has given two guineas to Ld. Derby, to receive 500 g[uinea]s whenever his lordship fucks a woman in a balloon one thousand yards from the earth”.

Sadly he does not regale us with whether the bet was won or lost.

The three main characters n the book – or at least the three main artists are Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruickshank, but he does bring to the fore Richard Newton, who would surely have joined them if it were not for an early death at 21. The other main characters are of course the Prince of Wales – then Regent – then George IV and the Ministers of the time, Pitt, Wellington, North, and radicals like Burdett, Cobbett, Wilberforce and Fox. In these set pieces he reinstates the extraordinary erotica of Rowlandson, neatly airbrushed out of his oeuvre.
Gatrell, like Wilson ends up recognising that London was a wealthier, cleaner healthier place after, despite a strong rearguard action, Londoners no longer bought these works, due a surfeit of either real or fashionable morality. However there is a strong feeling of regret that this vital, cavalcade of rudery vitriol and general fun was the baby that was thrown out with the bathwater.

I cannot but recommend this book if you want to have a flavour of London in this period, and if you want to have an idea of the freedoms that we took for granted and how they were overthrown. In this way this book shines a fascinating light on the London of today.

1 comment:

The Aunt said...

Am thoroughly enjoying Decency and Disorder. Thanks for the loan.