Ben Wilson's inspiration from his former tutor, Vic Gatrell: the themes and motifs

May 11, 2007

* Gatrell's course included a detailed handout of several dozen lecture slides, entitled: "The Age of Cant: The reformation of manners and the domestication of humour, 1790 to 1840."

Wilson's book is called, Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant 1789-1837 .

* Gatrell introduces his course, in the bibliography given to students, by explaining that it will address "manners, scandal, adultery and sex as subjects of contempt, mockery, mirth or fun" and "the gradual tabooing of this tradition" as "visual humour was sanitised in response to the rise of middle- and middling-class gentility, the tighter codification of personal behaviour and increases in social distancing".

Wilson's book, according to its jacket, chronicles a Britain whose "pleasure-loving" people were "notorious for their boisterous pastimes, plain speaking and drunkenness" and how they became "more censorious and hypocritical". According to its publisher, "the age of Cant is the point of metamorphosis when the British reputation changed from that of a boisterous, bawdy and plain-speaking nation to a respectable, restrained and sober one."

* Gatrell's handout "Naming the Age of Cant" features an 1822 satirical print by George Cruikshank, Making Decent , depicting anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce holding his top hat over the crotch of the first public nude statue in England, Achilles , in Hyde Park.

Wilson uses the same image as the frontispiece of his book, and uses several of the same images used by Gatrell in his teaching throughout the book.

* Gatrell's handout highlights Byron's attack on "cant political, cant religious, cant moral; but always cant'..." Gatrell quotes, from a private letter written by Byron, the poet's lament that "the cant is so much stronger than cunt, nowadays". Gatrell's notes say: "The shift from cunt to cant is as good a way as any of describing the cultural revolution now developing."

Wilson's introductory chapter quotes Byron's lamenting that "Cant is so much stronger than the Cunt nowadays" and quotes his concern that "the grand 'primum mobile' of England is cant: cant political, cant poetical, cant religious, cant moral; but always cant".

* Gatrell charts Byron's persecution, noting the "capitulation" of his status as the "last of the libertines". "Increasingly ostracised, his wife seeking a separation, plagued by debt, drink-sodden... he deserted his wife without compunction and left England forever in April 1816," Gatrell notes.

Wilson, in his book's introduction, highlights the "moral outrage"

that accompanied Byron's separation from his wife. He expands on this in chapter 11, "Byroned", noting that "when he left his wife in 1815, he knew the press, the gossips and the public would be in a hue and cry against him and wisely left the country".

* Gatrell makes much of the autobiography of Francis Place, a fashionable master tailor who during the 1820s began to record his rise from humble origins as the son of a publican. Gatrell's hand-outs say that Place's life is "emblematic" of the upward movement to respectability in 1820s, and the handout includes a series of slides dedicated to "the representation of 'improvement' in Place's autobiography".

Wilson makes references to Francis Place. He writes in chapter nine: "Looking back on his youth, Francis Place was convinced that there had been a revolution in the manners, morals and education of his contemporaries. People were more respectable, sober and ambitious."

* Gatrell's course handouts feature several slides on the 1821-22 book, Life in London with Tom and Jerry , by Pierce Egan, which was illustrated with engravings by the Cruikshank brothers. Gatrell said the images "were the last flings in our great tradition, the last images perhaps in which debauch and low conviviality were presented as something to be amused by".

Wilson dedicates an entire chapter to the book, titled "Slumming it with Tom and Jerry".

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