Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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Victorian Caricature

There has been no denunciation, and perhaps even no recognition, of a certain social immorality in the caricature of the mid-century and earlier. Literary and pictorial alike, it had for its aim the vulgarizing of the married woman. No one now would read Douglas Jerrold for pleasure, but it is worth while to turn up that humourist’s serial, “Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures,” which were presumably considered good comic reading in the “Punch” of that time, and to make acquaintance with a certain ideal of the grotesque. Obviously to make a serious comment on anything which others consider or have considered humorous is to put oneself at a disadvantage. He who sees the joke holds himself somewhat the superior of the man who would see it, such as it is, if he thought it worth his eyesight. The last-named has to bear the least tolerable of modern reproaches–that he lacks humour; but he need not always care. Now to turn over Douglas Jerrold’s monologues is to find that people in the mid-century took their mirth principally from the life of the arriere boutique. On that shabby stage was enacted the comedy of literature. Therefore we must take something of the vulgarity of Jerrold as a circumstance of the social ranks wherein he delighted. But the essential vulgarity is that of the woman. There is in some old “Punch” volume a drawing by Leech–whom one is weary of hearing named the gentle, the refined–where the work of the artist has vied with the spirit of the letterpress. Douglas Jerrold treats of the woman’s jealousy, Leech of her stays. They lie on a chair by the bed, beyond description gross. And page by page the woman is derided, with an unfailing enjoyment of her foolish ugliness of person, of manners, and of language. In that time there was, moreover, one great humourist, one whom I infinitely admire; he, too, I am grieved to remember, bore his part willingly in vulgarizing the woman; and the part that fell to him was the vulgarizing of the act of maternity. Woman spiteful, woman suing man at the law for evading her fatuous companionship, woman incoherent, woman abandoned without restraint to violence and temper, woman feigning sensibility–in none of these ignominies is woman so common and so foolish for Dickens as she is in child- bearing.

I named Leech but now. He was, in all things essential, Dickens’s contemporary. And accordingly the married woman and her child are humiliated by his pencil; not grossly, but commonly. For him she is moderately and dully ridiculous. What delights him as humorous is that her husband–himself wearisome enough to die of–is weary of her, finds the time long, and tries to escape her. It amuses him that she should furtively spend money over her own dowdiness, to the annoyance of her husband, and that her husband should have no desire to adorn her, and that her mother should be intolerable. It pleases him that her baby, with enormous cheeks and a hideous rosette in its hat–a burlesque baby–should be a grotesque object of her love, for that too makes subtly for her abasement. Charles Keene, again– another contemporary, though he lived into a later and different time. He saw little else than common forms of human ignominy– indignities of civic physique, of stupid prosperity, of dress, of bearing. He transmits these things in greater proportion than he found them–whether for love of the humour of them, or by a kind of inverted disgust that is as eager as delight–one is not sure which is the impulse. The grossness of the vulgarities is rendered with a completeness that goes far to convince us of a certain sensitiveness of apprehension in the designer; and then again we get convinced that real apprehension–real apprehensiveness–would not have insisted upon such things, could not have lived with them through almost a whole career. There is one drawing in the “Punch” of years ago, in which Charles Keene achieved the nastiest thing possible to even the invention of that day. A drunken citizen, in the usual broadcloth, has gone to bed, fully dressed, with his boots on and his umbrella open, and the joke lies in the surprise awaiting, when she awakes, the wife asleep at his side in a night-cap. Every one who knows Keene’s work can imagine how the huge well-fed figure was drawn, and how the coat wrinkled across the back, and how the bourgeois whiskers were indicated. This obscene drawing is matched by many equally odious. Abject domesticity, ignominies of married life, of middle-age, of money-making; the old common jape against the mother-in-law; abominable weddings: in one drawing a bridegroom with shambling side-long legs asks his bride if she is nervous; she is a widow, and she answers, “No, never was.” In all these things there is very little humour. Where Keene achieved fun was in the figures of his schoolboys. The hint of tenderness which in really fine work could never be absent from a man’s thought of a child or from his touch of one, however frolic or rowdy the subject in hand, is absolutely lacking in Keene’s designs; nevertheless, we acknowledge that there is humour. It is also in some of his clerical figures when they are not caricatures, and certainly in “Robert,” the City waiter of “Punch.” But so irresistible is the derision of the woman that all Charles Keene’s persistent sense of vulgarity is intent centrally upon her. Never for any grace gone astray is she bantered, never for the social extravagances, for prattle, or for beloved dress; but always for her jealousy, and for the repulsive person of the man upon whom she spies and in whom she vindicates her ignoble rights. If this is the shopkeeper the possession of whom is her boast, what then is she?

This great immorality, centring in the irreproachable days of the Exhibition of 1851, or thereabouts–the pleasure in this particular form of human disgrace–has passed, leaving one trace only: the habit by which some men reproach a silly woman through her sex, whereas a silly man is not reproached through his sex. But the vulgarity of which I have written here was distinctively English– the most English thing that England had in days when she bragged of many another–and it was not able to survive an increased commerce of manners and letters with France. It was the chief immorality destroyed by the French novel.


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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