City of Laughter: Vic Gatrell, Recently Awarded the PEN/Hessell-Tiltman History Book of the Year Award 2006 for His Book on the Satire of 18th- and Early 19th-Century Britain, Explains What Impels His Writing

Article excerpt

WRITING BIG HISTORY BOOKS is hard and isolating work--a test, every author knows, of one's capacities for optimism, endurance and self-discipline. Most writers in darker moments can wonder what their effort is 'for' and whether the world really needs another book. 'All writers are vain, selfish and lazy,' George Orwell wrote in 1946, 'and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.'

True: yet I think I do understand why I've written a big book about the history of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century satire, despite the pain of the thing. In the first place, writing City of Laughter has been therapeutic and cheering. It enabled me to recover from the awesome business, before it, of writing about the history of public hanging. The stories in my The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (1994) are grim, poignant, and anger-inducing. The images I discuss in Laughter are jolly, bawdy, and funny.

Beyond that, nobody has attempted a period-specific history of laughter before. Most historians write histories of misery, tears, and woe, and modern miseries, tears, and woe at that. Bookshops are full of works on twentieth-century wars, dictators, massacres, holocausts, or Churchill. Demand for this is insatiable. Laughter, by contrast, remains unexplored. This has been just as well for laughter, since nothing is more fatal to laughter than the business of analysing it. And yet laughter is an important historical subject, at the heart of our humanity. As the Aristotelean formula put it, man is the only animal that laughs because man alone can be surprised into laughter by the sudden perception that how things are differs from how they ought to be. In other words, the reflex of laughter is controlled by mental processes; and mental processes have histories. The matters that people have thought it appropriate to laugh at; who has laughed and when; whether men and women have laughed similarly; how cruelly, mockingly, sardonically, sympathetically, or generously they have laughed; and how far and about what they have permitted others to laugh - all these things are the stuff of history, since each varies with time, sex, class, place, and culture.

It helped me further in writing City of Laughter that I could build it upon among the least explored though most eloquent sources any historian could wish for. Most historians nowadays have little choice but to recycle and reinterpret familiar and well studied sources. But here I could excavate the mountain of satirical and humorous prints that filled London's printshops between 1770 and 1830 or so; they have hitherto been only thinly exploited. This, I thought, was where the quality of that age's humour could best be located, and what it says about contemporary mentalities be best identified. Everyone has some sense of Gillray's, Rowlandson's, and Cruikshank's satirical prints. Yet their prints make up the merest tip of an otherwise hidden iceberg. Some 20,000 single-sheet tides were published in the sixty years my book covers, and most were by artists unheard of today, and on subjects that deliver endless surprises. Best known are their commentaries on politics and international affairs. But the rest are about 'social and personal' matters, as the British Museum has catalogued them, and these covered all human life, so far as the Londoners who could afford to buy them then knew it. Satires and jokes about scandals, drinking, gambling, fornicating, and the great game between the sexes fill the goldmine out of which City of Laughter was hewn. What results is one of the few social studies of the era that depend on visual evidence, in a book of 695 pages with nearly 300 colour illustrations.

The most important thing that kept me at work on both City of Laughter and The Hanging Tree was the fact that each book tackles historical conditions that have recognizably formed me. …