City of laughter: sex and satire in eighteenth-century London

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Walker & Co., 2007 - History - 696 pages
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Between 1770 and 1830, London was the world’s largest and richest city, the center of hectic social ferment and spectacular sexual liberation. These singular conditions prompted revolutionary modes of thought, novel sensibilities, and constant debate about the relations between men and women. Such an atmosphere also stimulated outrageous behavior, from James Boswell’s copulating on Westminster Bridge to the Prince Regent’s attempt to seduce a woman by pleading, sobbing, and stabbing himself with a pen-knife.  And nowhere was London’s lewdness and iconoclasm more vividly represented than its satire. 
 
City of Laughter chronicles the rise and fall of a great tradition of ridicule and of the satirical, humorous, and widely circulated prints that sustained it. Focusing not on the polished wit upon which polite society prided itself, but rather on malicious, sardonic and satirical humor—humor that was bawdy, knowing and ironic—Vic Gatrell explores what this tradition says about Georgian views of the world and about their own pretensions. Taking the reader into the clubs and taverns where laughter flowed most freely, Gatrell examines how Londoners laughed about sex, scandal, fashion, drink and similar pleasures of life.
 
Combining words and images–including more than 300 original drawings by Cruikshank, Gillray, Rowlandson, and others—City of Laughter  offers a brilliantly original panorama of the era,  providing a ground-breaking reappraisal of a period of  change and a unique account of the origins of our attitudes toward sex, celebrity and satire today. Vic Gatrell is a professor of British history at the University of Essex, a life fllow of Gonville and Caius College, and a member of the Cambridge history faculty.  He lives in Cambridge.

Between 1770 and 1830, London was the world’s largest and richest city, the center of hectic social ferment and spectacular sexual liberation. These singular conditions prompted revolutionary modes of thought, novel sensibilities, and constant debate about the relations between men and women. Such an atmosphere also stimulated outrageous behavior, from James Boswell’s copulating on Westminster Bridge to the Prince Regent’s attempt to seduce a woman by pleading, sobbing, and stabbing himself with a pen-knife. And nowhere was London’s lewdness and iconoclasm more vividly represented than its satire.

City of Laughter chronicles the rise and fall of a great tradition of ridicule and of the satirical, humorous, and widely circulated prints that sustained it. Focusing not on the polished wit upon which polite society prided itself, but rather on malicious, sardonic and satirical humor—humor that was bawdy, knowing and ironic—Vic Gatrell explores what this tradition says about Georgian views of the world and about their own pretensions. Taking the reader into the clubs and taverns where laughter flowed most freely, Gatrell examines how Londoners laughed about sex, scandal, fashion, drink and similar pleasures of life.

“Laughter may be universal, but what provokes it is not. Even within a culture, humor can change drastically over a relatively short period. This truth is abundantly documented in City of Laughter, Vic Gatrell’s study of comic prints produced in London during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period he deems the golden age of satire . . . The prints themselves, hundreds of them, are wonderful, and Gillray, in full flight, can be hilarious, with a surreal touch that makes him seem much more modern than his peers. Mr. Gatrell provides expert, detailed commentary on each and every one.”—William Grimes, The New York Times

“During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Georgian England suffered a mad king, the loss of its American colonies, and the growing influence of revolutionary radicalism drifting across the Channel from France. In spite of this, and even because of it, social and political satire, as Gatrell shows in his exhilarating history, never had it better. Color printmakers took advantage of (and promulgated) liberated attitudes toward sex, bodily functions, and the British royalty. Gatrell’s book features nearly three hundred irreverently foul examples, to which he is an entertaining and appropriately digressive guide. In his hands, the prints provide a bewildering, sometimes nauseating, but ultimately enlightening portrait of a vigorously satirical time that lasted until the great settling down of the Victorian era.”—The New Yorker

“The fact that high and low coexisted in the minds and behaviors of actual Georgians is a bit of a leap for us. So too is an appreciation of these engravings, which are at once an expression of an extraordinarily refined visual facility and a ribald, often vicious temperament. The city that produced them—and whose life is the real subject of Gatrell's book—is similarly exotic terrain. Late Georgian London was a teeming and vibrant place, home to 10% of the country's people, ground zero for its aristocratic politics and its striving, though still fragile, middle class . . . It was the same place, of course, the same mixture of high and low, the same blend of want and opportunity. It was our world struggling to be born, and Gatrell has given us a vibrant album of its strange snap-shots.”—Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times

“Graphic sex, booze and personal attacks were staples of the visual satire of 18th-century England, as Vic Gatrell's City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London illustrates in delicious detail . . . A vivid social history . . . An invaluable history of these artists, engravers and print sellers and the raunchy, fleshy world they inhabited and depicted . . . The glory of City of Laughter is the nearly 300 illustrations, most in gorgeous color, that decorate its pages throughout. Walker & Company has done Gatrell proud: The entire book is printed on glossy paper that retains color and the clarity of the illustrations' often intricate details, even though most of the prints are reduced in size from their originals, sometimes considerably . . . This is a scholarly work that you might approach as a coffee-table art book, or as some of us do the New Yorker, paging through the cartoons first. Filled with vibrant images celebrating the bawdy, the salacious and the grotesque, City of Laughter is a visual delight.”—Kathryn Shevelow, San Diego Union-Tribune

“Rarely has a book matched its subject better than City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth- Century London. Those times were gargantuan and teeming with life, and so is Vic Gatrell's 695-page, richly illustrated work.”—George Walden, Bloomberg.com

“A wonderfully original, surprising, informative, fascinating and entertaining book. For years historians have been describing the rise of polite culture and polite manners in eighteenth-century London. Gatrell has spent those years examining the vast and almost entirely unresearched archive of comic and bawdy prints that tell us what made Londoners laugh around 1800. He tells us instead about the rudeness in the streets, the bedrooms, the taverns and the brothels, that pointed its joyful arse at the polite world.”—Professor John Barrell, University of York

“Gatrell continues to forward his illumination of the British 18th century by exploring and interrogating sources and subjects that are decidedly nonconventional. His examination of literally thousands of satiric prints made between ca. 1730 and 1830 is a springboard from which studies of London life, class conflict (and stability), humor, and sex—especially sex, underpinning the ‘libertine’ culture that operated as a rather prevalent alternative to orthodox ‘sensibility’—are brilliantly, absorbingly synthesized. These prints, their creators, and their consumers questioned royal privilege, lampooned aristocrats, advanced radical agendas—and reinforced the social reality that everyone and everything still had rightful, controllable places in a London undergoing profound economic and cultural change. Gatrell posits that these highly circulating prints were not only the preceding evolutionary rung to comics and cartoons but were also the first vehicles by which modern society's obsession with the visual was manifested. A page-turner for professional historians of that era as well as deeply engaged readers of English literature from Defoe through Dickens, this is a vital purchase for academic collections and flagship public library branches.”—Scott H. Silverman, Library Journal

“For those brought up on the genteel novels of Jane Austen, Gatrell has a rude surprise in store. Drawing heavily on Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson's famous satirical prints, Gatrell vividly demonstrates the maliciousness and ribaldry of Georgian London. What made Londoners laugh was less the polished wit of the literary salon than a combination of drunken frat-boy-style jokes, toilet humor and nasty political satire. Gatrell notes that few of the tens of thousands of prints that appeared between 1770 and 1830—the heyday of satire—dealt with ‘social change’ or high literature, except in the most condescending terms. They instead reflected ‘the subjects of everyday observation and conversation,’ at least of the artists' middle- and upper-class patrons, and ‘remind us that the views of most comfortable Londoners were then as unexamined and as bound by daily preoccupations as they are now.’ By 1830, the satirical impulse had been tamed by the rise of pietism, the idealization of female virtue, the coronation of a new king, steps toward voter franchise and the execution of leading radicals. Better manners and respectability, Gatrell sadly concludes, killed the fart joke.”—Publishers Weekly

“British author and academic Gatrell explores exhaustively, albeit most pleasantly, the golden age of graphic satire that flourished in licentious London from 1770 to 1830. London under George III and George IV was an economically and politically dynamic city, fast-growing, foggy and sinister, where the upper classes enjoyed enormous excesses and the lower classes writhed abjectly, with a chasm between. A new hunger for more graphic, explicit imagery was the result of an expansion of print culture and the attendant growth in demand from sophisticates as well as lower professionals and craftsmen. The older, classical tradition epitomized by the work of William Hogarth gave way to ‘commercial products [rooted] in the realities their purchasers recognized’—namely, politically roiling, scatological and sexually scandalous prints by artists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank. The dreamscapes of William Blake and Henri Fuseli also merit attention here. The miseries of the city, the goings-on inside private clubs and the Prince of Wales's profligate behavior (and marital battles) were the favorite subjects of the era, all treated in densely informative chapters. Gatrell's reading is vast and scholarly; he moves from the diverse personalities of London neighborhoods to evolving expectations of manliness and femininity; from the nature of laughter to the different kinds of humor expressed in prints (i.e., satire, caricature, literary grotesque). He highlights some of the innovators, like Thomas Tegg, who transformed the print trade ‘by cutting costs and prices,’ and ends with the era's ‘silencing’ by the rise of the Cant and the middle class.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Londoners of the late Georgian and Regency periods stoked a commercial boom in printed illustrations; 20,000 were published between 1770 and 1830, reports social historian Gatrell. The view they open to the riots of the populace and the roistering of the libertines renders an incomparable depiction of the city, reflected in some 300 graphics reproduced here. What Londoners found funny is the goal of Gatrell's thematic analysis of the images, which he buttresses with explanations of a scandal, a political figure, or features of society, such as prostitutes or clubs, that inspired particular images. It seems Londoners couldn't laugh enough over bodily functions, fornication, and drunken regurgitation, which became stock props for the illustrators. Successful illustrators such as James Gillray are the subjects of biographical sketches and critical appraisals, in which Gatrell tracks their success in caricaturing changing tastes. By 1820, this satirical genre was receding before the advancing middle class' values of respectability and sobriety. Capitalizing marvelously on an era's body of illustrations, Gatrell will captivate students of social history and fans of Peter Ackroyd's London.”—Booklist

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CITY OF LAUGHTER: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London

User Review  - Kirkus

British author and academic Gatrell (British history/Univ. of Essex; The Hanging Tree, 1994) explores exhaustively, albeit most pleasantly, the golden age of graphic satire that flourished in ... Read full review

City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London

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Gatrell (British history, Univ. of Essex;The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 ) continues to forward his illumination of the British 18th century by exploring and ... Read full review

Contents

London and the Pleasure Principle
23
The West or Worst End
51
Covent Garden and the Middling Sorts
82
Copyright

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About the author (2007)

Vic Gatrell is a professor of British history at the University of Essex, a life fllow of Gonville and Caius College, and a member of the Cambridge history faculty.  He lives in Cambridge.