Sunday, March 16, 2008

City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, by Vic Gatrell

This book should perhaps more properly be called City of Vulgarity. This particular history covers the satirical prints that proliferated in the period 1770-1830, most notably by artists such as Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson. If this period makes you think of the superlative wit of Dr Johnson, Tobias Smollet and Jane Austen, then City of Laughter may have you reaching for the barf bag.

Much of what Vic Gatrel outlines is a period of revolting misogyny, meanness and plainly dumb, gross toilet humour. Vic Gatrell says that this a period that needs to be exhumed and studied, and that it's amazing that no one has even given this period of 'artwork' an extensive study.

Personally, I wish this period had been left buried by Gatrell. Its six hundred pages was like wading through a Rabelaisian bog. Looking though the prints, you can see why they remain fringe dwelling curios. At first glance they look interesting, but soon lose their appeal. As art, they scrape the bottom of the barrel.

As one Amazon reviewer wrote, this is Benny Hill in 1800. I would add, with lots of misogyny and self-satisfied smugness thrown in. This may seem like a bit of a mean and unfair review (and perhaps it is), but this book depressed me.

Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen are the greats we remember from this period, and that's for a reason, because they are great.

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