The Pages of Punch
This posting is part of a series that I ran on another forum, the Mature Cheese, which was closed down some time last year. The active membership was vey small – about a dozen. I would now like to offer it to a much larger readership. So I admit that the following is not original, but I am only copying from myself. I hope people will like it.
For more than a century Punch had a special place in the nation’s cultural life. The jokes were seldom of the rib-tickling kind. More often they led to a quiet chuckle or the realisation that here was a witty and timely comment on contemporary life. Inevitably it reflected the opinions and indeed the prejudices of its readers who belonged to the comfortable middle classes. Today we look with distaste at the attitudes of the jokes towards foreigners, especially those of African and Asian origin and also to what were then known as the ‘lower orders’.
In spite of this (and indeed also because of this) many of the Punch cartoons provide a useful historical record of the times in which they were printed. Here is my first example which is dated 1880.
We see here several things at work. In the first place here is an instance of the very important part that matters ecclesiastical played in the nation’s affairs. Bishops were very grand indeed. A bishop’s official residence was called a palace and this was often no misnomer. Punch’s readers would all know that there would have been a veritable army of servants and the page in the picture would have been the very lowest in that army.
At one level the joke revolves around the boy’s lack of religious knowledge. What can you expect from the ignorant rabble? On the other hand his native wit has enabled him to understand the power structure within the palace. Education is not everything, we may surmise.
Also exposed is the well-observed fact that some women did not regard themselves in need of any emancipation. To the early advocates of feminism (including those demanding votes for women) people like the ‘bishopess’ were an affront. They did not regard her as an acceptable role model. Her importance was based simply on having married an important man and then bossing him about. She had not branched out in her own right and achieved her position by her own efforts. She, and women like her, was bitterly opposed to the suffragettes and their allies. They liked to keep things as they were - a situation which suited them very well.
The bishop and page cartoon was drawn by George du Maurier, a stalwart of Punch at the time.