Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), 696 pp., 289 illustrations, ISBN 1 84354 3214
John H. Baker
Between 1770 and 1830 some 20,000 satirical prints were produced and eagerly consumed in London, the biggest and wealthiest city the world had ever seen. Eager crowds would gather outside print-shop windows to gawp at the latest outrageous depiction of the bloated Prince of Wales engaged in one (or more) of his favourite pursuits—fornication, stuffing his fat face or drinking until he was sick — or of the sagging buttocks or pendulous breasts of the aristocratic society ‘beauty’ of the hour, often being fondled by a leering lover. About half of these prints dealt with political matters — the fear of revolution, the war with France or the corruption of the ruling class—but the others dealt with more personal (and intimate) matters, usually with a good-humoured frankness that can still alarm today. Genitals were usually off-limits outside pornography and erotica, but breasts and bums were fair game, as were defecation, urination and vomiting. The prints, almost three hundred of which are reproduced in Vic Gatrell’s excellent book, depict a veritable riot of buttocks, farts, pissing and copulation that testifies to a robust and raucous humour — and openness about our more animalistic activities — that would have horrified Jane Austen and entirely prostrated the average ‘respectable’ Victorian.
The first thing that one cannot help but notice about Gatrell’s book is its sheer bulk. The satirical outpouring of prints during the period has no parallel in British history, and Gatrell has striven to reflect this in his choice of prints. Beautifully produced, the text is well worth obtaining for the extraordinary pictorial content alone. Practically every page features colour reproductions of prints — mostly from the British Library’s collection and the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale — never made openly available since their initial publication. The range of subjects these prints address testifies to the fecundity of the satiric imagination during what has come to be known as the Romantic period. Bumptious country yokels are sneeringly depicted, absurdly out of place in the big city, while George III’s loathsome libertine sons slide drunkenly under tables or lecherously embrace their mistresses. James Gillray chillingly shows us a family of bestial French revolutionaries tucking into a feast of aristocratic flesh while George Cruikshank has a flabby Regent blasting his political opponents with a thunderous fart. Thomas Rowlandson even manages to make hard-core pornography amusing (no mean feat) in his erotic engravings; in one characteristically explicit example, a generously proportioned young lady waves a tearful farewell from a window to her sailor lover even as she receives, in Gatrell’s magnificent phrase, ‘her new lover’s shafting’. Another enthusiastically rutting couple is visible in the background. Never before has such a range of satirical prints of the period been made so immediately accessible, and Gatrell’s book will serve as an invaluable scholarly resource for years to come, particularly for those studying the development of English manners.
As Gatrell points out in his introduction, ‘historians’ neglect of this immense archive is odd’. It can be partially explained by the enormous size and scattered nature of the archive. However, it is at least as likely that many serious historians have been put off by the sheer vulgarity of much of the material. All those bums, farts and boobs would seem to be of little interest to scholars tackling the ‘big issues’ of the period. Gatrell vehemently disagrees, arguing that we can learn a great deal about this tumultuous period by examining what people found funny, and why. We may not be particularly amused by pictures of women urinating or drunken men vomiting into chamber-pots, but the consumers of these prints evidently were, and were willing to pay handsomely for such amusement. One should remember that these consumers were the relatively wealthy, since these prints were expensive items, out of the financial reach of the poor, although one assumes they joined the heaving throngs outside print-shop windows with the rest. One has to also assume that they were usually male, since the misogyny of many of the prints is, to say the least, startling to the modern viewer. Female sexuality, in particular, comes in for a comic battering—many an unbuttoned voluptuary lounges exhausted in these prints, worn out by the rapacious demands of an insatiable lover, while the (exclusively male) artists lose no opportunity to bring the sagging, wrinkled flesh concealed beneath even the finery of aristocratic women to the viewers’ attention. Gatrell argues that these prints, outrageous though they often seem to us, actually served a deeply conservative purpose. They acted as a ‘safety valve’ through which contemporary anxieties and taboos — political, social, sexual — could be harmlessly vented through belly-laughter rather than violence. It is particularly noticeable that political radicals like Charles James Fox are usually depicted as being as venial, stupid and corrupt as their Tory opponents, and the revolutionary French are barely accorded humanity at all; they cavort through these prints like demented apes. Even the openly radical satire of the nightmarish 1810s did not last long after the Regent became George IV in 1820.
Nevertheless, by the mid-nineteenth century, the age of the satirical print was over. Even politically innocuous images had been driven underground, and an open delight in farts, bums and genitals was no longer acceptable among ‘polite’ society — at least in public. The newly powerful and wealthy middle class feared and suppressed anything they thought of as ‘low’. Gatrell concludes his book by exploring the ways in which, by a complex combination of bribery, censorship, evangelical Christianity and shifting manners, the satirical print industry was strangled and the Age of Satire was transformed into the Age of Cant. The mindset commonly thought of as ‘Victorian’ could not permit respectable folk to so openly acknowledge, and laugh at, their own fallen humanity.
Gatrell’s excellent book will not merely be of interest to those wishing to learn more about the history of English visual satire during the Romantic period. The magnificent range of illustrations, and Gatrell’s informative text, provide the reader with a fascinating insight into the sheer bewildering variety of London life for all social classes during these tumultuous years — a variety that continues to mark this frenetic city today.
To Cite This Article:
John H. Baker, ‘Review of Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), 696 pp., 289 illustrations, ISBN 1 84354 3214’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/baker.html. Accessed on [date of access]