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Frances Wilson

Jokes of Old

Cruelty & Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental
Eighteenth Century
By Simon Dickie (University of Chicago Press 362pp 29)

Heard the one about the woman with a crooked back? Asked by a man where she came from, she replied 'straight from London'. 'Indeed, Madam,' said he, 'then you must have been confoundedly warped on the way.'

Jokes like this, found in eighteenth-century jestbooks, had our forefathers in stitches. In fact, anything to do with hunchbacks, club feet, cleft palates, harelips, scurvy, jaundice, rickets, epilepsy, asthma, syphilis, deafness, blindness, squints, missing limbs, long chins or stammers was guaranteed to set the table a-roar. David Garrick's most famous after-dinner routine was an imitation of a fellow with a speech impediment and a scarred face who came to offer himself for the stage. Fart jokes were also popular, as were gags about simple Irishmen, dour Scots, and Welshmen who like toasted cheese - but there was nothing, writes Simon Dickie (snarf snarf) in this grim and fascinating study of the production, distribution and reading of comic literature, that the Age of Reason found so funny as a dwarf. Told well, a good dwarf joke could ensure your status as a drawing-room wag for the whole season. For those lacking natural wit, these numerous jestbooks - consumed by middle- and upper-class men and women alike - contained not only jokes, puns and riddles but suggestions as to the appropriate accent to adopt in their public performance.

Cruelty & Laughter is about the less enlightened side of the eighteenth century. Dickie's purpose is to explore an archive of comic texts published between 1740 and 1770 that expose 'an impolite world that talked much about politeness'. The humour of the age, he argues, was completely alien to our own: this was the era before John Bull discovered sympathy or the appreciation of 'fine feeling'. The first readers of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads laughed at rather than pitied 'The Idiot Boy' with his doting mother; the general public delighted in the misery of others. Violence, intolerance and Schadenfreude, as Dickie puts it, were the bedrock of British liberty. It was assumed that husbands beat their wives and gentlemen mocked their servants, while tormenting the disabled was part of the knockabout comedy of daily life. Races for the one-legged, known as 'freak runs', took place on a regular basis; it was seen as high jinks to lead a blind man into a wall or a lame woman into the gutter. A figure as humane as Jonathan Swift got great amusement from giving false directions to a lunatic; the Duke of Montagu, a famously amiable man, arranged dinners for stutterers during which he would hide behind a screen and record the table talk; and when he was not writing his sublime religious poetry, Christopher Smart was collecting deformity jokes. The human body was the 'great primal joke' of the age.

It is in this context that Dickie reconsiders Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews and the ambivalent humour levelled at the twitching and endlessly humiliated Parson Adams, a creation praised by Mrs Baubauld for 'making us laugh so heartily ... and yet keeping it above contempt'. Placing Fielding, the greatest humourist of his time, back amongst his contemporaries and responding to the comedy of his writing as his first readers would have done is a masterly stroke in this scholarly, original and highly readable book.

But humour was not only to be found in novels or jestbooks. Working through the sessions papers of the Old Bailey, Dickie notes how court reporters, pandering to readers' taste, would represent the fate of those in the docks as farcical scenarios, with speech impediments, accents, verbal slips and stumblings all impersonated and exaggerated for the written record. Today we tend to laugh at the fustiness of judges out of touch with popular culture, but 250 years ago it was the vulnerability of the victims at public trials that represented the rich comedy of plebeian life. Rape trials were conducted in an atmosphere of particular levity: a fifty-year-old mother of twelve, accusing a neighbour of accosting her on Chelsea Common, described to a courtroom helpless with laughter how 'I held out against him, till I had no strength in me - he pulled my legs open with his hands.'

A Canadian academic, Dickie belongs to the most polite culture on earth and he apologises for retaining the eighteenth-century terminology of disability, for using 'dwarf' rather than 'little person', 'deaf' rather than 'person with deafness', as well as employing 'abhorrent' terms like 'fat, ugly, hag and cuckold'. He is even polite about the eighteenth century, apologising that at a 'time when life was painful and uncertain ... you took your pleasures where you could'. Laughing at others, Dickie suggests, we comfort ourselves.

Cruelty & Laughter concludes with the observation, made by Henry James, that Dickens reserved his softest sentiments for 'a troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and precocious children'. Eighteenth-century comedy became the stuff of nineteenth-century pity, but Dickie warns his twenty-first-century readers not to be 'too proud' of their 'humanity'. Our malicious impulses have not disappeared, he says; we simply 'satisfy them in different ways'.

Or perhaps our malicious impulses are satisfied in much the same way: in the year that Cruelty & Laughter was published, the English rugby team attended a dwarf-throwing contest in a New Zealand bar and the BBC showed Ricky Gervais's latest series, Life's Too Short, in which, weeping with mirth, we see a dwarf actor tumbling out of his four-wheel drive and finding himself unable to reach his own door bell. As Fielding put it, 'Now the Humour, or Manners, of this Age are to laugh at every Thing.'

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Frances Wilson's most recent book, How to Survive the Titanic or, the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay, is published by Bloomsbury.

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