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Notes de lecture

david f. taylor, Politics of Parody. A Literary History of Caricature (1760-1830)

New Haven (Connecticut): Yale University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780300223750
Brigitte Friant-Kessler
Référence(s) :

TAYLOR, DAVID F., Politics of Parody. A Literary History of Caricature (1760-1830), New Haven (Connecticut): Yale University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780300223750

Texte intégral

  • 1 Vic Gattrel, City of Laughter, Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London. London: Atlantic Books, (...)

1In the wake of scholarly studies by authors such as Dorothy George, Diana Donald, Amelia Krause, Ian Haywood, James Baker, Todd Porterfield, David Alexander, Robert Patten, and to some extent Vic Gatrell whose City of Laughter1 also comprises chapters on caricature, David Francis Taylor explores graphic satire during the latter part of the Georgian era in Britain, a period of time often referred to in caricature studies as a Golden Age.

2Taylor’s approach departs nonetheless from previously-held views in that he posits counterarguments to the rationale according to which caricature tends to be overly perceived and understood as an easily comprehensible medium across a large spectrum in society. Far from being so, Taylor repeatedly stresses the highly selective nature of caricature which is all too often lumped together with popular culture. His aim is to highlight from different angles how and why visual and literary discourses conveyed by graphic satire were not readily available, and to what extent satirical prints prove, then and now, difficult objects to apprehend.

3Taylor insists on three main points. The first is that caricature during that period has an elitist quality in terms of content and commercial value. Acquiring satirical prints meant sharing them as they formed part of leisure activities such as exhibiting and possibly discussing them in stately homes. It is described as a « gentlemanly hobby » (p. 24). The prints were certainly circulated but among a limited social and cultural network. Secondly, caricature requires a high degree of literacy and is frequently self reflexive : the case of Gillray’s King of Brobdingnag is a cornerstone in that respect and is treated as such in a specific chapter of the book. Thirdly, late Georgian caricature is replete with literary and political references which corroborate a lack of social inclusion related to prints but he supports his argument by selecting those which register political parody only. The term « parody » is, in that context, used as defined by Margaret Rose, something which « forces our attention on to both the problem of representation in the fictional work, and its interpretation by the reader. » (Rose cited by Taylor). Parody is not to be confused with allusion (32).

4For this hefty 303-page volume, which includes a very useful index of Dramatic Personae, i.e. people featured in caricatures and known in the late Georgian era but hardly recognizable nowadays, Taylor takes literature as a starting point. As signposted by the section Dramatis Personae, theatre is the bedrock of literature on which the book relies. It is a topic on which the author has extensively published with a particular interest in J.B. Sheridan. This partly accounts for the final chapter on Harlequin Napoleon. His earlier publications bearing on literature and caricature, for instance (« Edgeworth’s Belinda and the Gendering of Caricature », éditeur, 2014), neatly chime in too, as do his articles on Swift’s Gulliver revisited by Gillray. All this material has led to the foundation for a detailed and original combination that comes together in the book. Taylor’s take on both literary culture and political satire are central to Politics of Parody, and in more ways than one it achieves several goals.

  • 2 Todd Porterfield, The Efflorescence of Caricature 1759-1838, Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, p. 2.
  • 3 Peter de Bolla, The Education of the Eye. Painting, Landscape and Architecture in Eighteenth Centur (...)

5The author goes against the grain of the conventional caricature orthodoxies which fantasise a global reception process, notably by tagging satirical prints as « commodities » or else, reasserting a positivist, almost teleological view on the circulation of such prints. In Part 1, he offers detailed readings of a selected body of satires that show how politics, parody and visual satire are closely intertwined. This is what he calls « the literariness of graphic satire ». He equally departs from previous studies by analysing the frequently misleading interpretation of printshop window scenes in satirical prints as evidence for being the loci of social and political inclusion, which they clearly were not. A statement already made in the past by Todd Porterfield who denies the claim that « caricature succeeds, persuades, and communicates easily and unfailingly ».2 The section on the printshop satires is particularity illuminating and echoes seminal studies on the Enlightenment and educating the eye by Peter de Bolla. 3

6In Part 2, Taylor carries out study cases and focuses on Shakespeare, Milton and Swift, more specifically Macbeth, Paradise Lost and Gulliver's Travels. He argues in favour of those titles on grounds of frequency and popularity. On the other hand, he does acknowledge that such a selection is by essence partial and there are other literary pieces which inspired satirists. This offers evidence that there is still material which awaits discussion, and in that respect Taylor’s book is not only opening avenues but proves also stimulating for future research. The book includes two chapters on Shakespeare The Tempest and Macbeth, one chapter on Milton, one chapter on Gulliver's Travels, one chapter on Napoleon and again one final chapter again on Napoleon but through the lens of the theatrical figure Harlequin.

7Politics of Parody stands out as the first book-length and in-depth study of a literary history of caricature. Taylor’s methodology applied to specific examples both demonstrates the strength of the argument and provide us with an approach that can be applied to other corpora. The book is foremost aimed at long eighteenth-century scholars but it will appeal to a large readership whose interests lie in a variety of fields : print culture, literature, theatre studies, alongside political satire, both visual and textual. Diachronic wide-angle enquiries are essential in such scholarly investigations to avoid the pitfall of teleological orthodoxy. For a bigger picture on the topic, the period before the one dealt with in Politics of Parody, one might refer to The Power of Laughter (1500-1820) which begins with the sixteenth century. Or to go further, Brian Maidment’s study of caricature in early Victorian Britain can be a useful supplement to Taylor’s book, as are individual studies of prints of the period by, say, French researchers like Pascal Dupuy. The latter is a case in point inasmuch as authors who have engaged with satirical prints but are outside the English-speaking world are completely absent from the index, something one might regret. Dupuy, among others, have contributed to widening the interpretative scope of Napoleonic caricature and research on graphic satire.

8Taylor’s style is fluid and lively though he might have refrained from adopting at times a tone that feels very didactic by frequently beginning his sentences with periphrastic formulations like « what we have is », or « let me offer » which remind you of who is writing rather than what is written. The volume is illustrated with a very nice bulk of 76 black and white prints reproduced across the 7 chapters ; it might have been useful to have complete a list of those figures at the end, as some of them are less known than others. Pouring over some of those prints would have been more enjoyable too had they been reproduced at larger scale. But then again the number of figures makes expensive illustrations always an issue.

9Taylor’s scholarship is a manifestation of visual and literary knowledge steeped in great erudition and his arguments are convincing. More importantly, they resonate strongly with the way our contemporary Western societies are grappling almost on a daily basis with graphic satire, and how sadly the latter is frequently misread and misinterpreted. Taylor curated an exhibition with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2017 entitled "Draw New Mischief: 250 years of Shakespeare and Political cartoons" which explored the cross-fertilisation of visual and literary cultures by presenting cartoons inspired by Shakespeare's plays, from the eighteenth century to the present day. British editorial cartoonists rely to this day very much on the same methods as Gillray, Cruikshank and the likes. And as 2021 draws near the end, we might like to remember it was Napoleon’s 200th anniversary. While observing the cover of Taylor’s book gracefully adorned with Gillray’s King of Brobdingnag, that is, George III holding a diminutive Napoleon in his hand, one becomes aware of how distant such an image is for us. Yet the political parody which transpires has never ceased to be part of the toolbox of contemporary cartoonists. Another famous Gillray print, The Plum Pudding in Danger, remains one of the most parodied satires and is regularly conjured as a reference model. As for literary references, Shakespeare’s name is writ large : Macbeth’s cauldron scene with the witches is often parodied to illustrate, for instance, a satirical take on Scotland. Steve Bell’s IF series is worth a look in that respect.4

10The DNA of Georgian-era caricature still races in the blood of contemporary satirists and reading Taylor makes us timely aware of the subtlety and literariness of their art, now and then. It also points to the urgency of remaining alert and engaging with graphic satire from various vantage points. Literature is one of them, the lens of cultural studies at large and the history of print, material culture and trade are others which may prove fruitful. Interdisciplinarity is an essential part of understanding the mediascape, to borrow Appadurai’s terminology, in which those complex and ever fascinating images were disseminated because they remind us that, then and now, the « political present is given to the reader as if it was the political past » (13), and vice versa. Pouring over some of those prints would have been more enjoyable had they been reproduced at larger scale. But then again the number of figures makes expensive illustrations always an issue. A general ibliographical section at the end would have been welcome too, as the references across the notes are numerous and all potentially very helpful for readers who wish to go further. But these are minor details compared to the vast benefit of such a pleasurable and enlightening work.

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Notes

1 Vic Gattrel, City of Laughter, Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London. London: Atlantic Books, 2007.

2 Todd Porterfield, The Efflorescence of Caricature 1759-1838, Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, p. 2.

3 Peter de Bolla, The Education of the Eye. Painting, Landscape and Architecture in Eighteenth Century Britain. Stanford University Press, 2003.

4 https://www.belltoons.co.uk/bellworks/index.php/search?album=1&q=Macbeth&page=1

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Référence électronique

Brigitte Friant-Kessler, « david f. taylor, Politics of Parody. A Literary History of Caricature (1760-1830) »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 78 | 2021, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2021, consulté le 28 novembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/1718/8782 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/1718.8782

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Brigitte Friant-Kessler

Université Polytechnique des Hauts de France, Valenciennes

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