Eighteenth-century British culture is often seen as polite and sentimental—the creation of an emerging middle class. Simon Dickie disputes these assumptions in Cruelty and Laughter, a wildly enjoyable but shocking plunge into the forgotten comic literature of the age. Beneath the surface of Enlightenment civility, Dickie uncovers a rich vein of cruel humor that forces us to recognize just how slowly ordinary human sufferings became worthy of sympathy.
Delving into an enormous archive of comic novels, jestbooks, farces, variety shows, and cartoons, Dickie finds a vast repository of jokes about cripples, blind men, rape, and wife-beating. Epigrams about syphilis and scurvy sit alongside one-act comedies about hunchbacks in love. He shows us that everyone—rich and poor, women as well as men—laughed along. In the process, Dickie also expands our understanding of many of the century’s major authors, including Samuel Richardson, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Tobias Smollett, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen. He devotes particular attention to Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, a novel that reflects repeatedly on the limits of compassion and the ethical problems of laughter. Cruelty and Laughter is an engaging, far-reaching study of the other side of culture in eighteenth-century Britain.
As the twelve original essays collected in this volume demonstrate, to study the wit of seventeenth-century poetry is necessarily to address concerns at the very heart of the period's shifting literary culture. It is a topic that raises persistent questions of thematics and authorial intent, even as it interrogates a wide spectrum of cultural practices. These essays by some of the most renowned scholars in seventeenth-century studies illuminate important authors and engage issues of politics and religion, of secular and sacred love, of literary theory and poetic technique, of gender relations and historical consciousness, of literary history and social change, as well as larger concerns of literary production and smaller ones of local effects. Collectively, they illustrate the vitality of the topic, both in its own right and as a means of understanding the complexity and range of seventeenth-century English poetry.
Women’s persuasion and performance in the Age of Enlightenment
Over a century before first-wave feminism, British women’s Enlightenment rhetoric prefigured nineteenth-century feminist arguments for gender equality, women’s civil rights, professional opportunities, and standardized education. Author Elizabeth Tasker Davis rereads accepted histories of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British rhetoric, claiming a greater variety and power of women’s rhetoric. This recovery of British women’s performative and written roles as speakers, spectators, authors, and readers in diverse venues counters the traditional masculine model of European Enlightenment rhetoric. Davis broadens women’s Enlightenment rhetorics to include highly public venues such as theaters, clubs, salons, and debating societies, as well as the mediated sites of the periodical essay, the treatise on rhetorical theory, and women’s written proposals, plans, defenses and arguments for education. Through these sites, women’s rhetorical postures diverged from patriarchal prescriptions rather to deliver protofeminist persuasive performances of wit, virtue, and emotion.
Davis examines context, the effects of memory and gendering, and the cultural sites and media of women’s rhetoric to reveal a fuller ecology of British Enlightenment rhetoric. Each chapter covers a cultural site of women’s rhetorical practice—the court, the stage, the salon, and the printed page. Applying feminist rhetorical theory, Davis documents how women grasped their rhetorical ability in this historical moment and staged a large-scale transformation of British women from subalterns to a vocal counterpublic in British society.