Cruelty & Laughter

The prevailing impression of eighteenth-century British society is that it was a world of refined manners, a culture that was restrained, Christian, and extremely civilized. People may have laughed, but they certainly didn't laugh openly at cripples, dwarves, poor people, or rape victims. Or did they? In Cruelty & Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century, University of Toronto English professor Simon Dickie argues that the ribald antics of literary rogues like Peregrine Pickle were more reflective of the social mores of British society -- both upper and lower class -- than the comparatively polite milieus of Jane Austen novels. "This was not a polite world but an 'impolite world that talked much about politeness.' "

How impolite was it? "Lower-class boys delighted, everyone accepted, in confusing the blind and tumbling lame matrons into gutters." But what about the privileged? "One struggles to understand a world in which it could be funny to rob a pauper of his last resources, to torment an indigent with nowhere else to sleep, defecate, eat or make love. And yet it was so," Dickie says. "Such 'frolics' were not just imaginary scenarios: one routinely comes across them in elite diaries and letters."

To buttress his argument, Dickie has to contend with a dearth of literary evidence. "Among comparable categories of publication -- almanacs, newspapers, halfpenny ballad sheets, Nonconformist tracts, economic pamphlets -- ephemeral comic texts may be the least likely to have survived." But the examples he presents are convincing -- and largely shocking to modern sensibilities. Proper women, for example, were expected to show no interest in sex. Consequently, men were expected to be overly aggressive. This created a confusing and explosive dynamic, one that gave way to jokes that seem utterly foreign to people at a 250-year remove. "Rape jokes are everywhere one looks: in cheap pamphlets and song sheets as well as more literary texts. The same dirty jokes show up in ballad operas and then again as asides in otherwise morbid tragedies. As they migrate across genres, these jokes take every possible form; the only constant, in fact, is that the woman is always lying."

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