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December 13, 2011 —New book explores the vicious humour of the 18th century

by Christine Elias — Wednesday, Dec 14, 2011

December 13, 2011 —New book explores the vicious humour of the 18th century

Simon Dickie. Photo: D. Tyszko

By Christine Elias

Did you hear the one about the hated wife who choked on a fish bone? What about the poor fellow in the final stages of syphilis who couldn’t wear glasses because his nose fell off?

No, you probably haven’t — human suffering is not a laughing matter — anymore.

In his new book Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century, Simon Dickie of English challenges the common assumption that Britons of this period lived in a polite society. It was, in fact, a time filled with often cruel, low and decidedly vulgar humour.

Drawing on a wealth of source material — including jest books, verse satires, comic fiction, folk rhymes, plays, letters, diaries and newspapers — Dickie reveals that vicious jokes about wife beating, cripple tripping, rape and bathroom habits were as much a part of this society as compassion and sympathy.

“The fact that many — if not most — Britons openly delighted in the miseries of others is not our prevailing image of the mid-18th century,” says Dickie. “The same person could laugh one day at the suffering of others and be moved to compassion the next.”

Dickie explains that laughter and tears are proverbially interchangeable reactions and his goal was to explore a historical moment at which these emotional instabilities were especially overt.

Dickie acknowledges that the middle class was growing in this period, but insists that widespread changes in manners and tastes were slower to take hold. What people found funny was moving even slower still. “Spontaneous pleasures, unquestioned assumptions and belief systems, almost automatic reactions like laughter — will always resist change more stubbornly than other areas of culture.”

But change it did. Slowly — as few people listen when someone tells them not to have fun — new codes of conduct were embraced.

As Dickie puts it, “this resistance to new ideas is as powerful a historical force as the momentums of change, but is much less often explored.”

Until now.

Dickie’s book, published by the University of Chicago Press, will be available at the University of Toronto bookstore and is now on Amazon.