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Cruelty and Laughter

Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century

Cruelty and Laughter

Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century

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.

384 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2011

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, Humor


“This book is a prodigiously erudite reminder that the eighteenth century was not just polite, but vicious. Drawing on jestbooks, verse satires, comic fiction, and a plethora of overlooked sources, Dickie depicts a literary, visual, and physical world replete with cruelty, ribald denigration, and low and bawdy humor. Skillfully combining textual exegesis with a profound knowledge of recent social history, he shows that mockery of the lower orders, beggars, and the poor; jests and japes at the expense of the crippled, deformed, and handicapped; and ribald enthusiasm for sexual violence and rape were part of a cruel social world in which the unprivileged and disadvantaged, even as they sometimes excited compassion and sympathy, were just as likely to excite a disdain that ran the full gamut of verbal and physical violence.”

John Brewer, California Institute of Technology

“A pioneering work. Dickie uncovers a rich, long-neglected archive and challenges received wisdom on virtually every page. A joy to read and a revelation.”

Toni Bowers, University of Pennsylvania

“With great verve, occasional disgust, and intermittent outrage, Simon Dickie portrays a society of entrenched hierarchies in which entitled aristocrats entertained themselves with cripple dances, libertine young bucks wreaked havoc in both popular fiction and common reality, and the poor and disabled were the inevitable butts of cruel jokes on and off the page. Working against common scholarly assumptions but backed by ample evidence, he argues that delight in the suffering of others was one thing that all classes of eighteenth-century society shared. Throughout he combines the virtues of a historian and a literary critic with a creative and self-conscious awareness of the complex relation of representation to reality. One of the most original, readable, educational, and entertaining books in the field of eighteenth-century studies I have read in the past decade.”

Helen Deutsch, University of California, Los Angeles

“This excellent and thoroughly researched book argues clearly that eighteenth-century readers read—and worse, enjoyed laughing at—jokes that we would find in incredibly bad taste; and in that, Dickie sees the key to the persistence of an entire way of thinking that is now lost to us. Bringing a tremendous amount of material to our attention, he takes a provocative stance against what he sees as an idealized image of the eighteenth century and points to numerous avenues for future research. Terrific and important, Cruelty and Laughter will be of great interest to scholars of eighteenth-century history, literature, popular culture, humor, and the history of the book.”

John O’Brien, author of Harlequin Britain: Pantomime and Entertainment, 1690–1760 | John O'Brien

“Placing Fielding, the greatest humourist of his time, back amongst his contemporaries and responding to the comedy of his writing as his first readers would have done is a masterly stroke in this scholarly, original and highly readable book.”

Literary Review

“The examples [Dickie] presents are convincing—and largely shocking to modern sensibilities.”

Barnes and Noble Review

“Dickie unearthed a huge number of 18th-century jest books, poems, bodily dysfunction and rape jokes, ramble novels, and farces—most of them hitherto ignored or neglected—and here offers a valuable and engrossing exploration of them. . . . Highly recommended.”


“Dickie mounts a compelling case against what he calls ‘the politeness-sensibility paradigm,’ by resurrecting a jeering counter-discourse that reveled in human suffering and physical affliction.”

London Review of Books

“Dickie . . . has done a brilliant job illuminating a dark side to the British psyche some 300 years ago.”

Sun News Corp

“A brilliant and beautifully written book, Cruelty and Laughter introduces its readers to a world of violent mayhem, both rhetorical and real. . . . Such is the transformative experience of reading this book that I, for one, will never look at the mid-eighteenth century again in quite the same way.”

H-Net Reviews

“Astonishing. . . . If you think you know the eighteenth century, you will not look at it the same way after reading this book.”

The Dispatch

“Dickie’s book is energetic and full of perceptive detail, and assembles a great deal of little-known material.”

Claude Rawson | Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

“Dickie wants to study experience, the ‘reality’ behind the jokes, and to this end he complements his literary analysis with social history. He does a masterly job of using shreds of evidence to reconstruct not only a culture of cruel jokes but also the society from which these sprung. . . . Dickie has given us a terrific account of the unsentimental eighteenth century, deepening our understanding of how malicious laughter was an enduring element of British culture.”

Karen Harvey | Journal of British Studies

“This book is a genuinely interesting and important contribution to scholarship. Anyone interested in the comic writers of the eighteenth century will find Cruelty and Laughter worthwhile. Dickie has changed the way we should conceive of eighteenth-century humor and altered our understanding of what readers enjoyed reading. This book makes possible critical reassessments of Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, and others that take into account the reading public’s taste for cruel comedy.” 

The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer

“Dickie has performed a valuable service by digging deep in eighteenth-century popular (and for that matter high) culture and unearthing forgotten texts and the attitudes they project that prove his point beyond any doubt. His scholarship is thorough, indeed comprehensive, and his book is richly informative. . . . Masterful scholarship. . . . I will never again speak glibly of the Age of Sensibility.”

John Richetti | Age of Johnson

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations

Introduction: The Unsentimental Eighteenth Century, 1740–70

1  Jestbooks and the Indifference to Reform      
Nasty Jokes, Polite Women      
How to Be a Wag

2  Cripples, Hunchbacks, and the Limits of Sympathy      
Deformity Genres
Dancing Cripples and the London Stage      
Streets and Coffeehouses      
Poetry and Polite Letters      
Damaged Lives      
Disabled Bodies and the Inevitability of Laughter

3  Delights of Privilege      
Laughing at the Lower Orders      
Contexts from Social History      
Frolics, High Jinks, and Violent Freedoms      
Lovelace at the Haberdasher   

Joseph Andrews and the Great Laughter Debate      
Narrative from a High Horse      
The Ethics of Ridicule      
Fielding’s Problem with Parsons 

5  Rape Jokes and the Law      
Laughter and Disbelief      
Modesty and the Impossibility of Consent      
Functions of an Assault      
Accusing, Making Up, and the Local Magistrate      
Humors of the Old Bailey

In Conclusion: The Forgotten Best-Sellers of Early English Fiction      
Ramble Novels and Slum Comedy      
Reading for the Filler      



North American Conference on British Studies: John Ben Snow Prize

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