Mrs. Caudle's Curtain Lectures (by Douglas Jerrold, 1856).
Several of the more successful writers in Punch have been lately republishing their contributions in a collected form. It is a strange comment on the whole character of English wit at the present day that there should be comic newspapers at all; and it is perhaps a still stranger one that the writers in them should voluntarily submit their works to such an ordeal. It is not less unfavourable to wit to be pledged to joke about everything than it would be unfavourable to conjugal affection for a man to be under a solemn obligation to be always making love to his wife; and the deliberate collection and republication of a series of jokes produced under such circumstances is in almost every case a mistake of the same kind, but of an infinitely higher degree. The caricatures in Punch are often, perhaps generally, excellent; but the letterpress is written under an inexorable necessity of making the British middle classes laugh – an undertaking generally neither easy nor graceful. Those classes have many admirable qualities, but they are certainly not elegant triflers. A man who has been buying and selling all the week, and who will pass his Sunday in reading Bickersteth's works and hearing sermons in Islington, can no more appreciate an indolent ironical view of life than he could live upon what, till Punch taught him it was vulgar to do so, he would have called “kickshaws.” He is the kind of man who considers wit an innocent recreation, and who will prove that it does not come under the head of that “jesting which is not convenient,” by telling you that religion never was designed to make our pleasures less. To such a man the wit of Swift or the wit of Rabelais would be equally displeasing. He does not believe that all the world is a joke, or that it is all a bad joke. To his understanding, wit is merely a permitted amusement. He has no objection to laugh at a pun or a riddle, but he is simply shocked at those who look upon life from the ironical point of view. He has no wish to be one of the scoffers who shall come in the latter days, and still less to sit in the seat of the scornful. If the mass of the readers of Punch are thus shutout from what is perhaps the highest form of wit, they are not less excluded from the only other form of it in which it can be anything more than a toy. As some writers are witty because they look at life from a point of view peculiar to a very few minds, there are others who show wit in their way of treating the common affairs of life; but wit of this kind is, from the nature of the case, incidental. A man finds it, and does not make it. Having a mind alive to the grotesque contradictions which sometimes occur in human affairs, he points them out when they come in his way in his other pursuits. Wit of this kind can never be met with in a comic newspaper. It is the offspring of intellectual energy, full of its subject, and enlivened by the sympathy of kindred minds. It is the kind of wit which displays itself in the writing or speaking of accomplished and vigorous men addressing their equals; and it would never answer the purpose of a professional joker, even if he had the power, to use it to extract an occasional laugh from the very tame, placid, and uncultivated readers to whom for the most part he addresses himself.
The various collections of papers contributed to Punch which have been republished by their different authors, bear evident traces of the conditions under which they were originally produced. With hardly an exception, they are the smallest of small wit on the narrowest possible subjects. Even Mr. Thackeray is unable, under such conditions, to write like a man of genius. The Snob Papers and Jeames' Diary are directed at such small follies, and are overlaid with such glaring ornament, that it is hardly possible to believe that their author should have been the most profound of modern satirists, and far the greatest of living novelists. If this is true of Mr. Thackeray, it is far more true of Mr. Douglas Jerrold. No one can deny that he has considerable talents, or that, though he is for the most part reduced, like Pope and Pagan in the Pilgrim's Progress, to growl and gnash his teeth at the passers-by, he occasionally displays in that amiable occupation a certain amount of energy and a sort of fuliginous wit. We do not know how far Mr. Douglas Jerrold may consider it a compliment, but we do not mean to compliment him when we say, that the tone of his writings seems to us eminently aristocratic. His style is deeply imbued with the bitter contemptuous cynicism which nothing, can excuse, but which the satiety arising from high social position might enable us to understand. He is a Swift without genius, and restricted in respect of phraseology by the habits of the time in which he lives. Or, perhaps, we may say, with greater accuracy, that a writes as one of the courtiers of Charles II.'s court might have written if he had been an author by profession, and had been reed to accommodate his style to the prejudices of the nineteenth century. It is a strange study to watch a man of this stamp struggle under the necessity of amusing that part of society which has enjoyed the advantage of acquiring the usual branches a sound English education. It is like a half-bred horse grinding brickearth. The impatient gait, the malicious eye, the unequal pace, all tell how ill the animal is fitted for his task; but here is the clay, and there is the tale of bricks, and in due time the commodity required is ground out, and the commodious suburban residences at Hackney, and Clapton, and Camberwell, and Brixton chuckle over Mr. Punch's pleasant wit.
And yet what dreary wit it is when we come to see it lying dead before us, with no pictures and no change of style—ninety-seven octavo pages of small jokes, all upon the same subject! We should advise those who wish to judge of the justice of our opinion as to the effects of comic newspapers on wit, to go through the task of reading Mrs. Caudle's Curtain Lectures. They were Mr. Douglas Jerrold's greatest hit; and there is, no doubt, a certain tumour in the scheme, and a good deal of clever workmanship in the execution. But what humour and what workmanship could possibly redeem a plan so monstrous on the face of it? If Shakpeare had turned Mrs. Quickly into an article of commerce, and told her opinions on things in general by the pound, she would have become an unutterable bore; and certainly Mrs. Caudle is a long way behind Mrs. Quickly. “A scolding wife,” says Solomon, “is a continual dropping;” and Mrs. Caudle's Lectures are nothing but a reservoir of such droppings. There are thirty-five of them, any one of which is probably as long as the whole of the half-dozen speeches by which Shakspeare immortalized Falstaff's hostess. In reading the whole series, the real character of the material of which they are composed becomes apparent. It is, we think, the poorest and dullest conception that ever obtained any kind of reputation for a writer. There is neither life nor variety in it. Mrs. Caudle has no individual character— she is simply a collection of six capital letters prefixed to a string of ill-natured and unreasonable complaints. The book has neither beginning, middle, nor end; it might have been continued through any number of volumes, and its character is perfectly apparent when we have read a single page. It is impossible to go through it without seeing that it was constructed merely as a commodity to be supplied until the demand died out. If this publication had either fancy or art to recommend it, it would perhaps be unfair to apply very stringent rules of criticism to a work of imagination produced under very unfavourable circumstances. Punch's Prize Novels were works of art—so was James' Diary, and as such they had great claims to indulgent criticism. But Mrs. Caudle's Lectures have no pretensions to such a character. They are a manufactured article—a sort of literary Revalenta Arabica—a mere inorganic mass of fun divided into weekly portions, like the little books which contain texts for every day in the year. We rise from reading them with the sensation of having dined for a week on mouldy wedding-cake. It may be quite true that Mr. Jerrold did not intend his travaux d'esprit, for we cannot call them jeux, to be submitted to this kind of test; but then why did he publish, them in this form? If a mere joke is to fill a whole volume, it ought to address itself to faculties which are calculated to bear a certain amount of strain. The pleasure which we receive from verbal wit or caricature is in its nature transitory and occasional; and if it is kept up for any length of time, it becomes, like the violent pleasures of the senses—a rich taste or a sweet smell —positively painful. It is curious enough to see a tumbler stand on his head and walk about with his legs in the air, because we are not used to it; but if a tumbler were to walk on his head every day in the week from Knightsbridge to St. Paul's, the exhibition would be simply disgusting. We willingly pay a shilling to see the hippopotamus and the pythons in the Zoological Gardens, but we should be very sorry to pass a morning in their company. If a man will deal in prolonged, pleasantry, it ought either to be grave and logical, like Swift's Advice to Servants, or Defoe's Short Way with Dissenters; or it ought to be sustained by some dramatic or narrative structure: but when it combines flippancy, length, and a fragmentary character, it is utterly bad.
Passing from artistic to moral considerations: we cannot speak very highly of Mr. Jerrold's performance. The wit, such as it is, is of a very dismal and unpleasant kind. To read along series of fretful, teasing lectures addressed by a wife to a husband, which have no other recommendation about them than their studied want of logic and common sense, can hardly be considered excellent fooling. Perhaps no greater calamity could befal a man than to marry a woman so bitter, so selfish, so monstrously absurd and cruel as the heroine of this singular monologue; and we confess that we do not exactly appreciate the joke of specifying to all the world the details of a misfortune which would make the most splendid position, and the most interesting occupation in life, a continual purgatory. Mr. Thackeray very justly observes in the Newcomes, that, if a man had all that heart could wish on the single condition of always wearing shoes with a couple of sharpish nails coming through the soles, his life would be a burden to him. There may be minds which would relish a minute description of the inflammation, the swelling, the constraint, and the restless change of position, which such a state of things would involve, but we confess we have no such taste. It would of course be absurd to charge Mr. Jerrold with any deliberate wish to bring marriage into discredit, but we think that exaggerated descriptions of the defects and irregularities, which are incidental to the working of all the relations of life, are very unwholesome reading. They give a false notion of the intensity of unavoidable troubles, and we can well imagine that they may often produce bad effects on melancholy and sensitive dispositions. Most men find it difficult enough to bear up cheerfully against the common trials of the world; and we do not think that they are likely to be aided in that undertaking by the floods of sentiment and ridicule with which, in the present day, a variety of birds, more or less unclean, are constantly fouling the common habitation of the human race.
Saturday Review, November 1, 1856.