Punch and Prejudice
by Anthony S. Wohl , Professor of History, Vassar College

 

The nineteenth-century English periodical press was rich in comic journals - - Fun, Judy, Funny Folks, Tomahawk, Hornet, to name just a few. The most celebrated comic weekly of all was Punch, which began publication in July 1841. Under the astute guiding hand of Mark Lemon (editor from 1841-1871), it quickly won a reputation for stinging, radical, iconoclastic satire, and, priced at 3d., Punch saw its sales increase from an early circulation figure of 6,000 to 40,000 copies a week in 1860. By way of comparison, The Times sold 63,000 issues daily. (Ellegard 4, 20). Punch was superior in almost all departments to its many competitors and close imitators - - Fun so closely aped Punch that Thackeray, who was a Punch contributor, called it Funch (Stedman 135) - - but it was the quality of its cartoonists' draughtsmanship and their ability to seize upon current events for their cartoons, that set the journal apart. Among its many famous cartoonists were Richard Doyle, John Leech, Edward Linley Sambourne, Charles Keene, George du Maurier, Harry Furniss, and, preeminently, Sir John Tenniel, the famous illustrator of the Alice books.
It is of course both dangerous and simplistic to analyze the complexities of an enormously complex age through the lens of just one journal, however important or popular. Nevertheless one might say that Punch's cartoons appealed to its middle-class readership and reflected many of their ideas, attitudes, and prejudices, as well as their every day way of life. The Spectator rightly considered Punch to be the "mirror of the popular mind" and argued that "it teaches us both the strengths and the limitations of popular ridicule" (August 24, 1878, 1061). It is amusing to note that some years later, the same journal took an entirely different view when it dealt with the accusation that English antipathies towards the Irish could be gauged by Punch's vicious anti-Irish cartoons - - "you can never judge of the true feelings of a nation from the comic organ of any class, much less, perhaps, its middle-class. . . there is nothing at all to prove that even the readers of Punch approve the sort of caricatures of Irishmen they find there" (August 5, 1882, 1014). Punch, of course, was written to raise a chuckle, but that does not mean that historians should not take it seriously, for, as Richard Godfrey writes in English Caricature, 1620 to the Present (7), caricature, and by extension the cartoon in general, can be "a blunt instrument for the expression of prejudice." In the liberal society of late-Victorian England, priding itself on its openness and toleration, cartoons offered a release and a vehicle for the public expression of prejudices. It is important to note the empowering qualities of ridicule as "a kind of rhetoric; it prepares the way for action. Before the Jew could be made a scapegoat in Germany, he had first to be made ridiculous. Before Christ was crucified, he was mocked" (Elliott 85). Punch's cartoons, just like "Irish" or "Polish" jokes today, mirrored and gave expression to conscious and subconscious stereotyping and while one could argue that their humour was "good-natured" and not mean-spirited, one may also wonder whether the butts of the humour, the subjects of the cartoons, would agree. Certainly in a hierarchic and race conscious age, an age in which fear and suspicion of the newly re-established Catholic church (1850) in England was widespread, many of the cartoons reflected, and so perhaps strengthened and sustained, Victorian prejudices and the propensity to stereotype and to think stereotypically.
In his analysis of "the merciless derision" and "the ridicule meted out [by Punch] to the Jews", M. H. Spielmann resorted to the perhaps deliberately ambiguous phrase "merry prejudice" (Spielmann 103). It was in the spirit of critical investigation and analysis that students in History 387 went to Vassar's comprehensive collection of the nineteenth-century Punch to search for cartoons which reflected on and illuminated aspects of the course up to mid-semester. Do the cartoons which they found indicate harmless humour, "merry prejudice", or the rhetoric of ethnic, religious, and racial antagonisms and hatreds?

WORKS CITED

Cartoonists

1. W. Newman
2. W. M. Thackeray
3. C. Keene
4. L. Sambourne
5. L. Sambourne
6. Kenny Meadows
7. J Leech
8. J Leech
9. J. Tenniel
10. J. Tenniel
11. R. Doyle
12. J . Tenniel
13. G. du Maurier
14. F. Eltze
15. H. Furniss

Source of cartoons and cartoonists: Spielmann, M. H. The History of 'Punch' (London, 1895), 7, 9.