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Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century Hardcover – December 1, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“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)

About the Author

Simon Dickie is associate professor of English at the University of Toronto.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (December 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226146189
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226146188
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,500,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover
If you had lived in mid-eighteenth century England, you would undoubtedly have heard the joke, and probably many times, about that jolly fellow Beau Nash, who had many tales told of him, some of which may even have been true. One day, this particular one goes, in the grove, he joined some ladies, and asked one of them, who had a crooked back, whence she came? "Straight from London," came the reply, whereupon the irrepressible Nash rejoindered, "Indeed, Madam, then you must have been confoundedly warped along the way." The story was told and retold, and printed in jestbooks over and over again because they shamelessly plagiarized each other. It brought great laughter, but a couple of centuries later, we are likely to be embarrassed by the callousness of the joke; one does not make fun of hunchbacks. Not only that, but we have the impression that eighteenth century British society had refined manners, polite interpersonal dealings, and Christian concern for all. Not a bit of it, if you look at the jokes and stories recalled in _Cruelty & Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century_ (University of Chicago Press) by professor of English Simon Dickie. It was not just those with crooked backs that were the butts of jokes. The distasteful subjects of humor Dickie catalogues include amputees, blind people, rape victims, the indigent, dwarves, the deaf, squinters, stammerers, Welshmen, and many more. Dickie's astonishing work looks at the profuse books of jokes, the forgotten novels, and even the trial records of the age, and finds that the comparative politeness we find, say, in the novels of Jane Austen seems a completely different world. "This was not a polite world," writes Dickie, "but `an impolite world that talked much about politeness.Read more ›
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