- I Hope I Don't Intrude: Privacy and its Dilemmas in Nineteenth-Century Britainby David Vincent
David Vincent's fascinating double-history of nineteenth-century privacy and popular drama takes as its starting point (and frequently revisited touchstone) John Poole's phenomenally successful low comedy, Paul Pry, first performed at the Haymarket in September 1825 with John Liston in the starring role, and quickly pirated for restaging at the Royal Coburg Theatre (as Douglas Jerrold's Mr Paul Pry) and by Astley's Royal Amphitheatre (as Paul Pry on Horseback). "The Pry event" serves Vincent as a unique opportunity to trace the dynamics and dilemmas of privacy from the late Georgian period up to the Second World War. In part a "biography of a polymorphous [End Page 369]fictional character," I Hope I Don't Intrude: Privacy and its Dilemmas in Nineteenth-Century Britaintakes its title from the emblematic catchphrase of Poole's eponymous hero, which itself became a ritual refrain for the Victorians and their heirs (18). Aptly described by The Observeras "the curious, small-minded, obtuse, pertinacious, village pest, in which the dramatist has combined so much recognised truth with so much amusing absurdity," Paul Pry was rapidly taken up by the culture, demonstrating a remarkable plasticity in countless representations and reincarnations (qtd. 61).
Pry enjoyed a long afterlife in an incredibly diverse range of visual, textual, and three-dimensional objects. Ships, coaches, racehorses, coursing dogs, shorthorn cattle, flower varieties, inns, public houses, tracts, novels, newspapers, magazines, and miscellanies—an eclectic variety of objects without any immediately obvious, shared attributes—were named after Pry, symbolically imbued with or simply borrowing the marketable charisma of his voyeuristic, perambulating, often disruptive curiosity. Pry himself became an industry, escaping the local confines of the theater to circulate within a "fast, responsive, and energetic consumer culture at the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century which embraced just about every level of income, all kinds of taste and capacity and [which] with astonishing rapidity reached all around the globe" (99). Some sense of the original dramatic event was put on sale for every pocket and inclination.
Vincent's main achievement in this meticulously researched and eloquently written book is to build a compelling thesis about the origins and distension of new social attitudes and practices—"public curiosity about private affairs and private inquiry into public matters"—without ever losing sight of the Pry figure as that cultural phenomenon's chief instigator and singularly resilient, if also infinitely adaptable embodiment (117). As an early exemplar of the anonymous flaneur who enjoyed the freedom to wander the streets, enter any space, and inquire into any activity, Pry was also a versatile and culturally-appropriate figure for curiosity itself. He stepped into his "career of enquiry" in a burgeoning consumer culture (126). Blessed with the rather disconcerting capacity to "be anywhere and to see anything," Pry was quickly detached "from the vestigial sense of locality of Poole's drama" to become the subject of "successive dramatic, literary, and visual reworkings" (124).
Two of the most notable "reworkings" in the Victorian period were Pry's appropriation by caricaturists and his close association with scandalous journalism. Vincent argues that Pry's ubiquitous appearance in parodic cartoons as the meddling, inquisitive intruder—an illicit and unwelcome trespasser rudely interrupting what were supposed to be private (usually domestic) scenes—represented the "end of the tradition of abrasive and frequently raucous satire" practiced in earlier decades by such master caricaturists as William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and George Cruikshank (151). The comparatively naive and innocent "Paul Pry Nuisance" generated by Poole's play and its Georgian adaptations crossed the boundary "from informative enquiry to obscenity, libel, and blackmail" (166). By the mid-nineteenth century, this transformation was further augmented by various scandal sheets and newspapers (most of them fly-by-night publications) that borrowed Pry's name as a titular signifier of their intention to collect and...