Friday, November 23, 2012

The Changing Century Satirized

As the new century--the 19th--began, it seemed to many that the world had changed beyond recognition. By 1803 the changes, particularly to society, had become unavoidable.

The French Revolution had frightened the aristocracy of every nation. If change could be thrust upon people so violently, surely it might be better to resist change altogether. But wars had spread from that revolution, and the greatest of the 19th century wars was about to engulf Europe, and transform Britain. Change could not be denied.

For many, it was the alteration of society that was the most disturbing. The 18th century came to be seen as a society of honesty--rude and vulgar, perhaps, and distressingly indelicate at times--but essentially honest. By 1803, the new century was seen by some as deceitful and duplicitous. Several of the publications of the year chose to address the matter through satire and sarcasm.

The Cyprians Ball by Cruikshank
 The Literary Journal published an article titled "Modern Manners and Style" which began:
Although it may appear presumptuous to anticipate any of the decisions of posterity, it seems not improbable, that, a century hence, the present may be denominated the age of taste. Taste is a word which occurs more frequently than any other in all our printed annals;...
It continues:
At this season of the year taste presides over routs, and balls, and dinners. In these, we perceive that it consists of the aggregate of crowded rooms, chalked floors, and variegated lamps.
The writer continued his delicate diatribe by addressing the fashions of the current season:
With the ladies, it is the object to shew how little will do for dress; with the gentlemen, how much they can carry without fatigue.
The Circular Room at Carlton Palace by Cruikshank
 Another word which seriously disturbed the writer was 'style'.
One man lives in a very genteel style, while another rode his a very pretty style. Mrs. Siddons's style of playing Lady Macbeth is much admired, but not more than Mr. Hoby's style of boot-tops.
He goes on:
So general is the application of this magical word, that the newspaper critics have had a prodigious addition to their necessary employments, and are sometimes expatiating on the style of an epic poem, and sometime descanting on the style of a grand dinner; sometimes examining the style of a treaty, and at other time enlarging on the style of a song;...
The Times took a different approach to satirize the excesses and superficiality of the new century. It invented a mockery of the columns of society news that filled the pages of so many publications. Their "Specimen of Modern Intelligence from The Fashionable World" included these items of farce:
The fashionable Mrs. Hog has taken No. 127, Manchester Place, where she will receive her numerous list of elegant friends, as soon as her little drawing-room has got the new paper.

The great world were last night assembled at the fashionable Mrs. Plug's. It was the greatest squeeze of the winter. Mrs. Flip and Miss Amelia Flirt, we are afflicted to say, fainted in the door-way;...

Sir Frederic First has taken the elegant mansion of the late Lady Large, in Piccadilly.

Lord Thoughtless has increased his establishment by a groom of the chamber; and Sir Lionel Lofty has changed his silver lace [livery] to gold.

The Morning Chronicle published a letter to the editor--four and a half pages long--titled "The National Morality Implicated in Female Dress". It is signed 'Misogymnotas', so some hints of its content may immediately be determined. But the writer begins
While the public mind is agitated by speculations concerning peace or war, my attention is occupied by a subject of far deeper importance.

This subject is the new fashions that the new century has brought. The author is horrified apparently by short skirts and bare shoulders, but he is also offended by "...Bond Street loungers blanching their hands with cosmetics, and embrowning their cheeks with walnut-juice.." He suggests, tongue thoroughly in cheek, that penal acts be placed as " Virtue by authority of Parliament." He cites as examples: a Fichu Bill, a Petticoat Lengthening Bill, the Landau Bill, and the Smock Bill. Perhaps the looming war should have occupied more of his attention!

Finally, the General Evening Post participates in the general satire of the new manners. With 'Directions to a Lobby Lounger', the writer descries the behaviour of the young man about town:
Having gone through the usual routine of the day, as a Bond Street Lounger, a Park Lounger, and a Coffeehouse Lounger, in which several important stations I may hereafter give you some useful instructions, prepare for the theatre, the last scene but one in which you are to exhibit till the next morning.
He advises the young man not to dress for the theatre, and not to worry about bothering other patrons, but to pursue his own ends, enjoyment, and any female that takes his fancy. A parody of behaviour certainly, but also a damning comment on actions of a few.
The Great Subscription Room at Brook's by Cruikshank
All these satiric articles were gathered in one publication bearing the title
The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1803
Its subtitle declares it "An impartial selection of the most exquisite Essays and Jeux d'Esprits, principally prose, that appear in the newspapers and other publications". This magazine began publication in 1797 and ran until 1825. It was at one point owned by C. M. Westmacott, who I have discussed here, and whose publication The English Spy provides the illustrations for this post.

The first editor of the journal, Stephen Jones, stated his to be "a period when the collision of political parties, and the momentous incidents of the war, and of the French Revolution, began to elicit stronger flashes of wit, and satire, from the mind of genius, than had been produced for a long time before." Certainly the changing century brought concerns about all aspects of society to the fore, and the articles I have read shine a bright light on our Regency world.

'Til next time,

Source: Spirit of the Public Journals for 1803 available as a free download from Google Books.


Anne Gallagher said...

I hd to laugh out loud when I read the "Fichu Bill" and the "Petticoat Bill." Their satire is too funny.

Thanks for another great article Lesley-Anne.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thank you, Anne. You'd love this journal--many of the articles are laugh out loud.