City of Laughter, by Vic Gatrell

Fun, frolic and flash
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This rich, Rabelaisian study of "sex and satire" in London between the 1780s and the 1820s opens with an examination of Lady Worsley's bottom. Politely portrayed by Reynolds in a scarlet military costume, she was rudely lampooned by James Gillray, who shows her taking a bath while her husband hoists one of her many lovers to peep at her naked behind. This actually happened, as emerged in a trial that exposed Sir Richard Worsley's collusion in his wife's adultery. It made them the laughing-stock of London, and it provides a perfect illustration of the bawdy, scurrilous, subversive humour that is the subject of Vic Gatrell's wonderful book.

Academic analysis of comedy is no laughing matter. But Gatrell has an enviably light touch as well as an agreeably radical stance. He relishes "cheeringly offensive" attacks on the Prince Regent. He likes the besmirching of reactionary judges, as foreshadowed in his prize-winning book The Hanging Tree. He finds the old, earthy merriment candid, life-affirming and redemptive. He enjoys the "carnivalesque belly-laughter" of the 20,000 satirical prints that appeared in London during this period. Most have never been seen again and Gatrell reproduces nearly 300, to give his history an indispensable visual dimension. The images are admirably integrated with the text, which in some ways echoes them.

Gatrell's prose is an idiosyncratic mixture of demotic and didactic; it's pertinent rather than elegant, giving the impression that he is thinking aloud. His penetration becomes obvious once you try to interpret the prints without his commentary. It explains not only their immediate purpose but the social changes and cultural shifts they represent. These were complex and their significance is still contested, like that of the 1790s sartorial revolution. Then, fashionable women went bare-breasted, evidently a form of emancipation, and men abandoned colourful silk, satin and lace for the subfusc they still wear, apparently an assertion of masculinity.

At the same time the libertine tradition, obverse of Augustan refinement, was in the ascendant. This was reflected in club life. At Brooks', where Charles James Fox was challenged to write his Essay on Wind (farting), the betting book records this wager: "Ld Cholmondely has given two guineas to Ld Derby, to receive 500 g[uinea]s whenever his lordship fucks a woman in a balloon one thousand yards from the earth." At Anstruther, in Scotland, members of a club called the Beggar's Benison went in for "lectures on sex, much drink, collective masturbation and half-naked posture girls dancing on a table". The Prince of Wales was given membership and, as king, he allegedly presented the club with a snuff-box of his mistress's pubic hair.

The licensed jesting of print engravers was equally scabrous. Unlike Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson and the Cruikshanks did not moralise. They satirised, sometimes celebrating London as a kaleidoscopic burlesque full of "fun, frolic, fashion and flash", sometimes assailing the vices of leading figures with cruel and obscene gusto. Gillray skewered "the bottomless Pitt" as a vulture, huckster, drunkard, toadstool, sleepwalker, glutton, highwayman and Death on a white horse. Aware that such critics were malicious not seditious, and that anyway he could buy them (as he eventually did Gillray) with secret service money, Pitt dismissed the prints as "one of the harmless popguns of a free press".

Their fire became more furious during the Regency, reaching a climax during the divorce proceedings against Queen Caroline. Then it fizzled out. This was not just the result of massive royal bribery, a more effective tool against image-makers than prosecutions (which silenced radical writers). It resulted from the rise of respectability. That stemmed from Evangelicalism, the association of libertinism with Jacobinism, the march of progress, the beginnings of political reform, the increasing control of the poor (who "have no business to laugh"), and the spread of sensibility, especially among women with a "rampant passion for chastity". Nowadays, Byron quipped, "Cant is so much stronger than Cunt".

As this suggests, the libertines fought back; but they were overtaken by a moral revolution that became Victorian prudishness. The satirical prints of the 1820s contained not a single fart or buttock. And they gave way to the insipid cartoons of Punch, whose comic muse, Thackeray noted, had been "washed, combed, clothed and taught... good manners". All in all, Gatrell's story is one of intense interest and importance. No one else could have told it with his combination of knowledge, insight and vivacity. He has produced a masterpiece.

Piers Brendon's 'The Dark Valley' is published by Pimlico