Richard D. Altick. Punch: The Lively Youth of a British Institution, 1841-1851. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997. 776 pp. $65.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-0710-9.
Reviewed by Sadie Clifford (Cardiff University)
Published on Jhistory (July, 2006)
Punch was a British comic periodical, both popular and critically successful, established in 1841. It endured for 160 years and published a number of significant authors and illustrators, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, P. G. Wodehouse, P. J. O'Rourke, Sir John Tenniel, and E. H. Shepard. More than a dozen books and several articles have appeared on the subject or aspects of it, and the first history of Punch was published in 1895.
This new history has been reviewed at least twice before, with both reviewers praising its comprehensiveness. The author, Richard D. Altick, claims that Punch: The Lively Youth of a British Institution 1841-1851 is the "the first attempt to contextualise any periodical, serious or light, in so great circumstantial detail" (p. xx). Its originality lies chiefly in this rich description of the socio-political context, and the manner in which the audience is identified. Numbering 776 pages and 31 chapters, it is a weighty volume (nearly 800g in fact). Altick is Regents' Professor of English at The Ohio State University and a winner of the Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award, for The Presence of the Present (1991). He has written more than twenty monographs, including The Art of Literary Research (1963), although he is possibly best known in Britain for his 1957 work, The English Common Reader.
Altick uses a qualitative historical method, in which his primary evidence is presented with extensive description and quotations. The subject is treated thematically, introducing the minor irritant of a coding system for referencing that requires the reader to repeatedly consult a table at the back of the book. Altick considers Punch to reflect changing social realities of the era, a "journalistic witness to history" (p. xxi), although he acknowledges that it did not reflect a national consensus and its influence is "unmeasurable" (p. 734). The approach centers on explaining the meaning of its jokes, cartoons, caricatures, and serious political articles in relation to contemporary social values. It does this by contextualization. This is the book's great strength; it brings together so great an amount of circumstantial evidence that it is able to explain jokes that are dependent upon a high level of socio-cultural knowledge. The chapters are organized in topical clusters, although in the middle part there is some sagging into miscellany, perhaps reflecting the paper's subtitle, "The London Charivari," (after Le Charivari, the satirical paper of Paris, meaning cacophony in French). Students of these topics will find deep cultural understandings with which to enrich factual accounts, although Altick responsibly points out his own limitations here--it is not within his scope to attempt to compare Punch's representation of satirical targets with less partial portrayals. While the scale of his work more than justifies this limit on scope, it does prevent assessment of the wider social significance of particular issues. For instance, was Punch's opposition to "Puseyism," (a form of high Anglicanism close to Catholicism) worth the loss of one of its best illustrators, the Catholic John "HB" Doyle?
The serio-comic magazine achieved great success and national significance within the first ten years of its foundation. It caught the mood of the mid-century, which was beginning to develop that prudishness for which Victorianism is now a byword. While making pithy political comment and social satire, it eschewed the grotesque, the sexual scandal, the lavatorial (or rather, chamberpot) humor of Regency cartoonists such as George Cruickshank and James Gillray. Maiden aunts and young ladies could read it without fear; it was respectable enough to be seen reading on the train. In a competitive market (in the same period 845 periodicals were launched in London), Punch secured the support of the Times newspaper, which used the magazine as filler and feature material. Reviews in highbrow publications such as the Westminster Review and popular success with Thomas Hood's "The Song of the Shirt" (a radical rhyme against sweated needlework published in Punch) brought it to the attention of influential readers such as Lord Palmerston, Elizabeth Barrett, Thomas Carlyle, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, and Emily Dickinson. At a time when circulation is difficult to assess, Altick's approach to readership is based on solid historical work. The above luminaries (and many others) named Punch in diaries and letters. The extent to which it was pirated, translated, and reviewed (in overseas as well as British publications) is painstakingly delineated. Using contemporary assessments, comparisons with similar publications and the official Inland Revenue accounting of stamps, Altick estimates Punch's circulation to have risen from 22,795 in 1844 to 33,180 in 1850, though there may have been more than five readers per copy.
Readers were presented with a wide variety of pastiche and puns, both visual and verbal, ornamentation, doggerel, caricatures, and parodies drawing on modern and classical literature. Yet these were held together by the character of "Mr Punch," a "fiction of a distinctive, quirky personality presiding over the paper" (p. 65), supported by the tradition of anonymous contribution and use of the pronoun "we."
Within Punch's multiformity, Altick identifies class as a key issue. The paper espoused somewhat radical sympathies, supporting the repeal of the Corn Laws and disseminating the belief that "the poor were victims of oppressive classes and institutions" (p. 189), particularly in Douglas Jerrold's articles. Yet as it gained its middle-class audience, "the ferocity of [its] social criticism noticeably abated" (p. 234). However, it continued to use class, as a comedic trope, and in its "satiric sociology," such as Thackeray's "The Snobs of England," which is "one of the reasons its files are so valuable to historians" (p. 493). Altick argues that its vulgarizations were not intended to insult the lower orders, but to expose middle-class rituals for a "deflationary effect." Yet the footman, the urchin and the Cockney street sweeper were stock characters, and it mocked the poor and illiterate. However, the most pilloried character (appearing more than twenty times) was the beadle (a type of security officer). Gentlemen of leisure ("swells," "idlers," or "mooners") and "gents" (those affecting the lifestyle of the swell without the means) were objects of satire (pp. 505, 507). Professionals such as lawyers and medical students were also mocked.
Altick's careful examination of content on domestic issues reveals that certain subjects have a long history of being butts of satire. British readers will recognize "Dad's Army" jokes in Punch's treatment of local militias, and the Queen's husband was (and still is) a prominent satirical target, while the Queen herself escaped (and generally still does) serious criticism. Particular public figures, such as Henry Brougham MP and Colonel Sibthorp MP, were repeated targets in the magazine's campaign against "privilege, corruption and humbug" (p. xix). Other domestic topics for satire included the railway share bubble; sports and entertainments such as the pleasure gardens and ballooning; metropolitan concerns such as the traffic congestion, omnibuses, and advertising vans; West End theater gossip and opera house impresarios; the new "lit and phil" societies; and low-quality literary genres such as "railway novels" and Oriental fantasy. Yet Punch did not always poke fun; for example, when the Great Exhibition was opened in 1851, it "served as the Crystal Palace's most enthusiastic publicity agent" (pp. 618-635).
In foreign affairs, however, Punch was less charitable. Reflecting the norms of the age, it exhibited a casual prejudice against the Irish, Jews and Americans. Altick explains its therefore somewhat puzzling popularity among American readers as "nostalgia" or "romantic dreaming" for the "old home" (p. 27). Its Gallophobic attacks on Louis Phillipe earned it a ban in France, which it publicized with pride. Women in politics were also considered beyond the pale (unless they worked for the Anti-Corn Law League).
The above are merely highlights of this immensely detailed work. Altick contributes not only to British media and social history, but even corrects the Oxford English Dictionary, identifying earlier uses of "rail" in a racecourse context and a slang name for the Army and Navy Club. He also casts doubt on the historical legend, still purveyed as truth by TV documentaries, of Sir Charles Napier's punning declaration of his conquest of the Indian province of Sind ("Peccavi," or "I have sinned" in Latin). This comprehensive work may be best digested in small portions, but is occasionally leavened with jokes inspired by Punch's style. The magazine feared that Puseyites might defect to "Rome en masse, as Punch might have put it but didn't" (p. 476), and it rejected teetotalism in a "light-hearted spirit" (p. 220). Its coverage of a Post Office spying scandal is described as "the letter-opening flap, so to speak" (p. 256). The best-known joke about Punch is that it was never funny. This book shows how its jokes, however weak, can be hugely valuable to the historian of British cultural values, and demonstrates important and well-executed methods for understanding them and its readers.
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Sadie Clifford. Review of Altick, Richard D., Punch: The Lively Youth of a British Institution, 1841-1851.
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