News from the eighteenth century
By MICHAEL CAINES
The eighteenth century is good for a laugh – at least according to the Gin Lane Gazette. See above for an example: here’s the Duke of Norfolk sizing up his somewhat raw-looking main course. This “vulgar, heavy, clumsy, dirty-looking Mass of Matter” (meaning the Duke rather than his dinner) apparently holds a record for a member of that terribly eighteenth-century confraternity, the Sublime Society of Beef-Steaks, “by consuming an astonishing Fifteen Steaks” at one sitting. “He has a Capacity for Liquor as great as his Appetite for Victuals”; when he inevitably passes out as a result of his exertions, four servants carry him away to bed, and sometimes take advantage of the situation to clean him up, something he seemingly cannot do for himself.
The work of the cartoonist Adrian Teal, the Gazette is a busy confection of similarly outlandish stories, with plenty of cheekily bared body parts, posturing duellists, hapless politicians and prodigies of nature. (The caricature of Norfolk, naturally enough, belies his significance as a patron of the arts and politician.) On one page, Dr Johnson appears in a pseudo-publicity shot for his long-awaited Dictionary of the English Language (as below); over the page, he's offering a certain crude salute to Jonas Hanway, the author of An Essay on Tea to which the lexicographer took exception.
Even without Teal’s colourful (or rather, apart from the cover, black-and-white-and-red) views of the past, the message is clear. These people lived bizarre lives – as readers of popular histories of Georgian England have long thought. They resemble their descendants in certain respects, conveniently enough; in others, they are in a world of their own.
This world is peopled with absurdities. Would a theatrical satirist who lost a leg and gained a theatre as a result of a riding accident in the presence of a prince amuse you? Look no further than Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Or how about an anti-slavery campaigner who secretly adopted two orphan girls, in the hope that one of them would grow up to be his ideal woman? Try Wendy Moore’s How To Create the Perfect Wife (a book I recently reviewed for the Wall Street Journal). Doctors who killed (as in Roy Porter’s Quacks) and women who dressed as men and joined the Navy (as in S. J. Stark’s Female Tars)? It’s all good eighteenth-century fun, apparently – and it looks only a little odd as translated by Teal into the language and look of a fictional newspaper from the period.
Appropriately, the Gazette has come into being in an old way made new: readers pledged their support for its publication via the Unbound website, and are duly listed as “subscribers” at the back of the finished book. Anybody feeling sufficiently Georgian may go through the list looking for grandees, and, in their apparent absence, will have to console themselves with the presence of some scholars of the period and Haven Risk Management.
They might also note, as they flick the page one way, that Teal has wisely adopted the long “s” in order to “celebrate some of the lost qualities of times past”, and, flicking back, that there’s a page acknowledging the “invaluable” assistance of secondary sources ranging from Mr Bligh’s Bad Language by Greg Dening to Christopher Hibbert’s King Mob and Katie Hickman’s Courtesans – a piece of academic diligence which was not so common a feature of the period. (It’s a bit misleading, though, to date T. H. White’s more sophisticated essay on the same theme, The Age of Scandal, to 2000, fifty years after its first publication).
There’ll be a review in the TLS soon of two books about Dr Johnson that show Gazette-worthy quaintness and a contrasting intellectual magnificence combined in that single figure. And I suspect that sooner or later we might find ourselves reviewing yet another book about one of those “Ladies of Fashion” who so delight Teal – those ladies who “insist upon perpetuating their slavish Devotion to Finery of prodigious & ridiculous Dimensions” at “Routs, Levees, & Balls”, where they sport “phantastickal Decorations”, including “miniature Ships, arrangements of Fruits & Feathers, & Birds who appear to have made their Homes atop their towering Tresses”.
“We hear often of Ladies who are oblig’d to sit upon the floors of their Carriages, so tall are the Adornments perch’d upon their Scalps. . . .”