Douglas Jerrold is one of those prolific Victorians most people know almost nothing about, yet from the 1830s to 1850s he was absolutely at the centre of literary London. A friend of Dickens and Thackeray, both pall-bearers at his funeral, Jerrold was for a time among the most popular writers in Britain. Given that he was an editor, playwright, journalist, novelist and public wit, "the rapid eclipse of Jerrold's fame following his death is remarkable".
His melodrama Black Eyed Susan and his brilliantly comic but dark sketches of married life, Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures, were among the most popular works in their genres throughout the 19th century. Michael Slater's biography – which masterfully balances the contextual details with the biographical – helps us understand why.
Jerrold was a figure completely of his moment. As the Atlantic Monthly said in 1857, "Jerrold and the century help to explain each other". Or as Slater puts it: "he was, in his own crooked little lion-maned person, a true hero of, and for, his times".
He emerged a hero of the people when working on Punch in the 1840s. Initially a far more radical magazine than we might expect, it held a mirror up to the Establishment during the socially unstable "hungry forties". Jerrold contributed a great deal to the magazine, significantly sketches signed by "Q", that attacked social injustice, abuses of power and hypocrisy. "They functioned in the paper rather in the manner of editorials," Slater tells us, and showed a combination of sympathy and radicalism that helped the magazine make its mark.
But it was Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures (still in print) that really captured the public's imagination. These sketches, serialised in Punch, are the monologues of a familiar comic type, the nagging wife, who "lectures" her husband before bedtime. "Like the owl," Jerrold writes, "she hooted only at night". Such pithy phrases still make one smile. In one lecture, when Mr Caudle takes Paradise Lost to bed, Mrs Caudle responds: "If that isn't insulting a wife to bring a book to bed, I don't know what wedlock is," adding "but you shan't read, Caudle; no you shan't; not while I've strength to get up and put out a candle".
In the 1890s, the writer Alice Meynell suggested that "any vulgar penny-a-liner can draw a Mrs Caudle". She objected to what she read as the contemptible treatment of the wife. Certainly, there is little to defend on feminist grounds. But Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures are enlightening for other reasons.
For one, they give us insight into a difficult subject for the Victorians: marriage gone terribly wrong. As a piece of comedy, there is something especially Victorian about it. As a satire on incompatibility, its underlying savageness strikes me as peculiarly modern. Whether Jerrold's writing still speaks to us in the way Dickens and Thackeray do is uncertain; but Slater's welcome biography should ensure that he regains some of his former glory.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies