- It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own
Simon Dickie’s Cruelty and Laughter, recently released earlier this year in paperback, is a judicious, readable study of a variety of “forgotten” comic texts and other media in English, centered on the period 1740–1770. Dickie ranges “from pamphlets and short-lived periodicals to jestbooks, verse miscellanies, farces, variety shows, and comic fiction” (xi), even jaundiced commentary penciled in the margins of Old Bailey trial transcripts. In foregrounding these texts, which “seem almost oblivious to . . . humanitarian sensibilities” (xi), he contests the dominance of “the politeness-sensibility paradigm” in eighteenth-century studies (3), and proposes “an expanded understanding of some major authors” (xi)—though only Fielding, in a chapter on Parson Adams as qualified figure of fun, and Smollett, in the book’s suggestive conclusion, receive sustained attention. Cruelty and Laughter is nevertheless a useful contribution to debates about the rise to dominance of “modern,” sympathetic manners and polite discourse in the British nations and Ireland, a rise which if Dickie is correct must be deferred to late in the eighteenth century at least. It is also timely, as modernity’s chronology and even its very definition continue to be hotly contested by political and literary historians (witness Jonathan Clark and Howard Weinbrot’s exchange in the Times Literary Supplement this past March and April).
Dickie argues carefully: there is no “generalizing about this culture as a whole” (15), and after a stretch of sustained argument, “At this point, every professional historian will take several steps backward—and qualifications are clearly required. First, I am not making a holistic claim . . .” (38). His most interesting work is on ramble novels, the “forgotten best-sellers of early English fiction” (250), many of them pale imitations of Tom Jones or Roderick Random. Derivative did not mean unpopular, however; these texts “were in no way distinguished . . . by the book trade nor by reviewers or readers . . . from what are now accepted as literary novels,” and often “published in the same duodecimo format and sold for the same price of 3s. per volume” (251). [End Page 114]
Smollett, indeed, in his dual role as creator and critic of ramble novels, epitomizes Dickie’s core argument: mid-eighteenth-century Britons and Irish had not yet trimmed and stretched eccentric, contextually-driven sympathies and antipathies into tidy, rationalized structures of feeling of the sort favorable to (and favored by) modern mass society. Smollett’s authorship of picaresque, roguish, even cruel characters and scenarios that, when authored by others, moved his Monthly Review to declare that “It is impossible to conceive anything more stupid, incoherent, and indelicate” (270), inevitably raises the question of taste, both the mid-eighteenth century reading public’s and our own. One wants to ask: Are we all literary historians now, or is the profession’s tent big enough to accommodate evaluative and appreciating (or depreciating) studies, too? Dickie opines that “Times have now changed. Few professional scholars talk about literature in the old exalted sense, and aesthetic judgments are seldom relevant. We know what forward-looking perspectives do to the past” (277). Yet teleology and even canon forming, it seems, will out: “[T]hese texts are dead ends . . . Few readers of midcentury comic fiction—or any of the other forgotten rubbish of this study—could feel much regret that literary history left them behind” (279).
Alas, a glance at the Amazon bestseller list reveals that literary rubbish is alive and well, and still making producers and distributors rich, though very little of it is funny, except unintentionally. That aside, assuming as Dickie does that Roderick Random, say, has a demonstrably more inventive plot than Will Ramble, or that Frances Burney is verbally wittier than Edward Kimber, surely there is plenty of room for studies like his own that, critical and well versed in social contexts, also take into account how memorable or compelling a text was, and is, to its...