The absence of an authoritative history of the Victorian period's most successful comic magazine is no laughing matter. Patrick Leary's book makes no claims to be such a history, but it is one of the most detailed studies yet of the magazine. The Punch table, a [End Page 780] weekly dinner meeting hosted by the magazine's proprietors, provides the organizing principle of this book. As Leary vividly demonstrates, the camaraderie and disputes among contributors at these weekly meetings were central to the magazine's success. The book is at once a study of gossip and a delicious example of it. Its six chapters examine various forms of oral discourse typically left out of studies of print culture, from the evolution of the dinner meeting to the influence of hearsay among the magazine's staff. The book's second half focuses largely on biographical accounts of the well-known feud between Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, the neglected career of Shirley Brooks, and publishers William Bradbury and Frederick Mullet Evans.
Leary's account of Punch is set apart from its predecessors in a number of ways. Whereas previous studies devote their attention to the magazine's contents, influence, and readership, Leary focuses instead on its production. Like Richard Altick, whose influential book covered a single decade of the magazine's history, Leary restricts the scope of his study to the years between 1857 and 1874. He acknowledges the mystique of the Punch staff without becoming misty-eyed himself about their accomplishments. This is a welcome correction to the reverential tones sometimes found in previous studies. Leary's clear-eyed (if regrettably humorless) approach to the beloved Mr. Punch resists nostalgia through its scrutiny of the brand as a successful publishing strategy.
Yet what truly distinguishes Leary's book is Punch contributor Henry Silver's unpublished diary. This manuscript is that rarest of resources for the book historian, a near-verbatim record of the conversations held at the magazine's private weekly staff meetings over a twelve-year period. You might say that Silver is Punch's Boswell. This resource enables Leary to reconstruct, in a life-in-letters sort of way, the conversations behind the cartoons. The level of detail is exceptional. Silver's diaries allow Leary to dramatically reenact the origins of individual cartoons, from initial brainstorming sessions to final debates over presentation. This collaborative format—now standard practice for comic entertainment, most notably on television—offers a reminder of how misleading it is to treat the magazine's full-page cartoons as the work of a single staff member. Leary is right to suggest that the diary makes us feel as if we are seated at the Punch table. We come to know the magazine's contributors on a nickname basis: Mark Lemon ("Uncle Mark"), Horace Mayhew ("Ponny"), and Percival Leigh ("the Professor"). Silver's record offers a rare glimpse of the collaborative process at work that is usually accessible to us only by way of anecdote. The term collaborative might even be misleading since the contributors held conflicting political views that came to a head when discussing the magazine's stance toward current events. Even impartiality was a contentious matter for Douglas Jerrold, who lamented that the magazine was willing to make a joke of anything.
Silver's record is particularly remarkable for the candor with which the exclusively male group spoke to one another. The ribald humor ("smut" [qtd. in Leary 39], as Silver calls it) that Punch excluded from its pages in order to reach a respectable, middle-class audience was never far from the surface. The book's most entertaining material arises from the contrast between the unguarded private conversations held at the weekly meetings and the public copy appearing in the magazine. In fact, it is Leary's assertion that such meandering, disputatious talk played a larger role in publishing history than has been acknowledged. Nowhere is this more evident than in the book's revealing [End Page...