I began researching the Regency era in earnest on August 1, 2009. I had written a story board outlining the plot for Rosings Park, my novel based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (I later discarded the story board because my protagonist, Anne de Bourgh, refused to cooperate on the issue of her marriage. She can be so hard-headed—although she was right in the end.) August 1, 2009 marks my first trip to my local used bookstore where I bought 10 or 12 books on 18th-century London, poetry, and England’s social history, working class and crime. Among these was a book that quickly became a favorite: City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London by Vic Gatrell.

Sir_Richard_Worse-than-sly,_exposing_his_wife's_bottom;_-_o_fye! by James Gillray, 1782 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

James Gillray’s 1782 satirical engraving titled “Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife’s bottom;—o fye!” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gatrell’s book opens with a lively description of a satirical engraving showing Lady Worsley exposing her bottom to her lover. (Her lover, Captain George M. Bisset, can be seen standing on her husband’s shoulders in the engraving at left.)1 Fashionable London was captivated by the scandal in which Sir Richard Worsley brought a suit against Captain Bisset* for “criminal conversation” with his wife. Criminal conversation, or “crim con” for short, referred to adultery; the offense was likely included in Sir Worsley’s suit as a prelude to divorce. Lady Worsley is mentioned in my previous blog of July 23rd, where a decidedly more traditional image of her is shown. In 1782, when Gillray’s engraving was printed, there were altogether about a dozen such prints that captured her bad behavior while delighting her detractors. The prints circulated quickly through London society.

In City of Laughter Gatrell focuses on “the stories, jokes and satirical exposures that later Georgian English people found funny … [He] examines how they laughed about sex, scandal, fashion, drink and similar pleasures of life; and [he] enters the clubs and taverns where that laughter flowed most freely.”1

London claims first place in Gatrell’s discussions, partly because close to one million people lived there in 1801—958,863 people, according to the first ever census in 1801. Paris, by comparison, had half the population. By 1800, London was home to some 3,000 to 4,500 families of the aristocracy and gentry during the parliamentary season; some 1,000 families belonging to the banking and mercantile industries; plus about 30,000 families whose livelihoods arose from trade, shopkeeping and crafts.1

How accurate is that census figure of one million people? Did it include the “dangerous” class of citizens: pick pockets and quack doctors, the rookery residents and resurrection men, the prostitutes and pilferers, the lumpers and scuffle-hunters, the dog stealers and cheats and gamblers?2 Possibly not, but London was at once the center of high society and the pit of low life. Its streets were cursed with fog and smoke and noise and overrun with coaches, carts, carriages, wagons, curricles, horses and people, but it also bestowed excitement, entertainment, pleasure and even joy.1

The Pillory at Charing Cross by Rowlandson and Pugin, 1809 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Pillory at Charing Cross by Rowlandson and Pugin, 1809. Here, fashionable aristocrats mingle with the hoi polloi. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gatrell’s marvelous book contains dozens of satirical prints. Any event or person or idea might be lampooned: politicians and politics, cuckolds and fallen women, the Prince of Wales and other elites, medicine and midwives, morality, marriage, bathing, the clergy, sex and seduction (of course!), body functions (urination, defecation, farting), drunkenness, licentiousness … whatever was fashionable. If it was designed to entertain, it was printed, placed on display and sold for a shilling or two.

The Caricature Curiosity by William Holland, 1806 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Caricature Curiosity by William Holland, 1806 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gatrell reports that during “the golden age of graphic satire,” roughly 20,000 satirical or humorous prints were published in London between 1770 and 1830.1 Londoners sought out their local caricature shop they way we go online for stories about Taylor Swift, the Kardashian family, Donald Trump, Tom Brady and dozens of other “stars” in today’s news.

After reading City of Laughter, my view of Jane Austen’s Regency world tilted right over. Gone was the veneer of gentility and respectability I believed pervaded Regency life. In its place rose something far earthier and more interesting.

*The spelling of Bisset’s surname differs by source. On Wikipedia, it appears as both “Bissett” and “Bisset.” I chose to use “Bisset,” based on Hallie Rubenhold’s excellent book, Lady Worsley’s Whim (London: Vintage Books, 2009).

NOTE: Anyone interested in viewing more satirical prints and learning how to “read” them can download the following PDF: Earenfight, Phillip, et al. Bawdy Brits & West End Wit: Satirical Prints of the Georgian Era. Carlisle, Pa.: The Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, 2011. (Give it a few minutes to load.)

1Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. New York: Walker & Company, 2006, pp. 1-9, 25-31.
2Low, Donald A. The Regency Underworld. Stroud, Glos., 1982, pp. xii, 14-15.