Monday, August 31, 2009

The condition of England and the Royal Bum

Vic Gatrell, in his book about Georgian and Regency humor, poses one of the essential questions of English cultural history: why did no cartoonist ever depict Queen Victoria’s behind? Why was she never depicted mooning it, much less shitting, pissing, or even farting?

George III and George IV, as well as Queen Caroline, certainly were. Gatrell’s book (The City of Laughter) is a heavy tome because it is filled with wonderful color illustrations. One of them, by Gillray, must have been exhibited in the windows of Mrs. Humphrey’s print shop, where all his cartoons were first exhibited. It shows the counties of England and Wales as patches of a coat and a pair of pants – Kent is a shoe, and Cornwall is a sort of stocking. Between the two of them, Sussex is a round blue cheek, from which is being spewed multiple turds towards the coast of France. And up at the top of the map, below Northumberland, is a face – the bloated face of George III. The cartoon is entitled: “The French invasion; or- John Bull, Bombarding the Bum Boats. France, one sees, is a face itself – a not happy face, as it is being covered with shit.

This was not, on the evidence of Gatrell’s illustrations, a unique conceit. All of Britain’s public figures were liable to have their pants pulled down or their petticoats pulled up and their behinds exposed. Yet, at the same time as this rich London based graphic culture was flourishing, novels, poems and essays were getting less scatological, Smollet was criticized for his smutty jokes, and pulled many of them out of the second edition of Peregrine Pickle. There’s a marked increase in euphemism; there’s a marked increase in respectability.

Eventually, of course, the culture of respectability caught up with the parade of cheeks in the prints, and squelched them, just as the board of Sanitation caught up with the 18th century habit of defecating casually in the park or the street, which was remarked upon by astonished travelers. Shitting was considered the acme of humor for a time – Gatrell remarks on the popularity of painting eyes on the inside bottom of chamber pots with the motto video omnia – I see all. If Foucault is correct that the panopticon was the dream model of 19th century governance, it went along with the vanishing of the chamberpot view – or perhaps one should say its displacement from the public humor to the gravity of the clinic.

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