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The Punch Brotherhood

Town Talk and Print Culture in Mid-Victorian Britain


Patrick Leary


London: The British Library, 2010

Hardback. 197 pp. ISBN 978 07123 0923 3. £25.00


Reviewed by Françoise Baillet

Université de Cergy-Pontoise


To the contemporary observer, the nineteenth century remains the age of the printed word. Throughout this period—and most intensely the reign of Victoria—the demands of a considerably enlarged readership resulted in the production of an unprecedented amount of publications, ranging from “picture books” to the periodical press or literature. Outstanding technological innovations such as wood engraving (formerly developed in the 1790s by Thomas Bewick) or steel engraving gave rise to new ways of displaying relations between word and image, accelerating the birth of mass-market publishing.

A striking example of this “partnership between pen and pencil”(1) was Punch or the London Charivari. Launched in 1841 as a threepenny comic paper, the magazine provided its readership with a successful combination of political comment and topical engravings throughout the Victorian era. As the British icon it rapidly evolved into, Punch has, over the last century or so, been the subject of a number of analyses, from Marion Spielmann’s founding work (1895) to Richard Price’s 1957 History of Punch and Arthur Prager’s Mahogany Tree (1979).

The originality of Patrick Leary’s approach to the subject in The Punch Brotherhood lies in the author’s choice to examine the conversations around the famous “Mahogany Table” as a major influence on Punch’s editorial line and subsequent printing choices. “What concerns me”, he writes, “is not the magazine as a text, but the magazine as a business enterprise and a working community” [6]. Subtitled Town Talk and Print Culture in Mid-Victorian London, Leary’s 197 page-long book is divided into six chapters, the first two of which focus on the oral processes within the circle itself while the four others, investigating the social, professional and financial relationships of the “Punchites” to various personalities of the day, widen the author’s scope and set his argument within the larger context of the mid-Victorian literary and publishing world. Another of Leary’s aims, as expressed in his thoroughly documented introduction, is to reassess Punch, not as the unified publication most historical accounts tend to privilege, but as a multi-vocal community whose inner relationships—agreements and disagreements—played an active role in the editorial process.

Based on the sole available record of Punch’s oral culture, Henry Silver’s diary (1858-70),(2) the book’s time span is largely determined by this source and covers the period 1857-1874, setting aside the early years of the periodical’s existence. Aware of what could appear as a flaw, Leary devotes part of his first chapter to a rapid summary of the magazine’s history, bridging the gap between the early forties and the late fifties, when Silver succeeded Thackeray around the Table. In this part, entitled “The Brotherhood of the Punch Table”, Leary considers the invention of the weekly dinner meetings as one of the reasons for the paper’s immediate and long-lasting success, an outcome which Punch’s domestic brand of humour—a striking departure from the Regency-influenced satirical journalism which had prevailed until then—and the financial stability provided by its publishers, Bradbury & Evans, could also have favoured. The second chapter, devoted to the “Large Cut”—the full-page cartoon at the centre of the magazine—allows Leary to develop a very convincing point about the Victorian insistence on status and boundaries. For the Punch staff, he explains, striving for propriety implied making a selection from topical subjects according to the imagined reader’s understanding, moral sensibility and preferences. This, in turn, occasioned deep-seated disagreements around the Table—over such political and social issues as the American Civil War or the extension of the franchise—which, as reported in Silver’s diary, belie the notion of a unitary Punch community. Most importantly, Leary explains, the way in which “print and visual culture [were] crucially shaped by the world of talk” through this oral process allows us to measure the weight of a certain form of censorship dictated by this very Victorian attempt at a “decent, restrained, respectable, domesticated press” [58].

Broadening his analytical scope, Leary then proceeds to examine the Table as a microcosm of the London literary scene. Chapters III and IV consider the nature of the Punch gossip and the way in which its circulation within the magazine affected the outside world. Here again, the convincing notion of border-safeguarding comes to fore through Leary’s insistence on the contemporaries’ need for clear-cut divisions between private and public spheres. At a time when “personal journalism” was already thriving on the readers’ interest for celebrity authors, he explains, “the continued policing of those boundaries became, itself, a matter of dispute, division and anxiety” [58]. Punch’s willingness to preserve the Victorian standards of reserved male behaviour thus led the magazine to a straightforward rejection of Swinburne, whose flamboyant behaviour was deemed improper. In those years when pictorial journalism still suffered from the stigma of the Georgian and Regency scandalous press and when the artist’s status remained circumscribed, what Punch’s editorial ethics expressed was above all a profound insecurity. The “Garrick Club Affair”, which opposed Dickens and Thackeray over the question of the privacy of club conversations, was yet another instance of that “genuine anxiety concerning the boundaries between private talk and public print” [29].

More loosely connected to the overall framework of Leary’s demonstration, perhaps one of the few weaknesses of the book, Chapter V nevertheless offers an interesting insight into a specific period of the Punch history. The policing of oral culture is here considered through the perspective of Shirley Brooks’s editorship (1870-1874), when Punch became the true voice of the Establishment. Opposing former historical accounts, and notably Arthur Prager’s analysis, Leary revisits the magazine’s late Victorian shift towards conservatism, attributing it to the sole personality and action of a man striving for solvency and respectability. “In short”, Leary concludes, “Punch did not grow more establishmentarian and more hostile to working men and Reform in the middle decades of Victoria’s reign because the magazine had grown up; it did so, in large part, because it had hired Shirley Brooks” [124]. At a time when the artist’s position was still uncertain and when material success was considered a virtue, Brooks’s Tory editorship could indeed be seen as an attempt to cleanse the magazine of its former bohemian and radical associations, and to reach for a more elevated status.

The closing chapter of The Punch Brotherhood tackles the question of oral culture from a more business-oriented angle and focuses on the role of the magazine’s publishers, Bradbury and Evans, in the maintenance of the weekly dinners tradition. “[] what is more rarely noted, then or since”, Leary analyses, “is how this intangible structure of feeling, to borrow Raymond Williams’s phrase, was made possible by the staff structure of the magazine, a structure created, financed, and maintained by Bradbury and Evans”. Under the elegant heading of the “capitalization of sociability”, Leary thus proceeds to list the publishers’ initiatives which, from changes in the methods of distribution to the guarantee of a steady income for the editors or the selectiveness of a staff now eligible for a weekly salary or the transfer of the weekly dinner to their Bouverie Street premises, resulted in a growing success for the magazine.


(1) Gerard Curtis, Visual Words Art and the Material Book in Victorian England, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002 : 2.

(2) Henry Silver. Diary. Punch archive. British Library.







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