James Beresford’s The Miseries of Human Life, which first appeared in 1806, is still funny. I own the Past Times 1995 adaptation, whose cover bears the Cruikshank illustration, The Head ache, shown at left, and from whose spine a ball & chain dangles. This version drops the numerous Latin phrases of the original, as well as the dialogue form--a style popular in the late 18th and early 19th C, which modern readers may find a bit arch and artificial. Yet I’d suggest you try the original anyway, because it’s full of funny little bits, and many of its miseries apply today as well as then.
MISERIES PERSONAL, EXISTENTIAL AND OF THE BODY The horror of contriving how to adjust one’s legs and arms at the age of nineteen in a drawing room.
MISERIES OF TRAVELLING In speeding through towns and turnpikes, the nervous habits and desperate manoeuvres to which you are perpetually driven, to avoid gratifying successive shoals of children, in their eager wishes and strenuous endeavours to be run over.
MISERIES OF SOCIAL LIFE Sitting down alone in a large party upon a sofa that makes an equivocal noise.
MISERIES OF FASHIONABLE LIFE Being a lady of a certain age, throwing yourself into your carriage at daybreak, after some long and fatiguing orgy, finding yourself face to face with your gentleman escort, with the killing consciousness that the beams of the rising sun, by pointing at certain derangements in the composition of your countenance, are gradually rectifying a few chronological errors in your own history, into which you had been leading him an hour before.
MISERIES DOMESTIC Squatting plump on an unsuspected cat in your chair.
Being serenaded at your window, all night long, by the tender war-whoop of two cats, performed with demoniacal variations and professional enthusiasm.
MISERIES OF THE TABLE Slipping your knife suddenly and violently from off a bone, its edge first shrieking across the plate (so as to make you hated by yourself and the whole company), and then driving the plate before it, and lodging all its contents—meat, gravy, melted butter, vegetables, &c., &c., partly on your own breeches, partly on the cloth, partly on the floor, but principally on the lap of a charming girl who sits by you, and to whom you had been diligently endeavoring to recommend yourself as a suitor.
While swallowing a raspberry, discovering by its taste that you have been so unhappy as to occasion the death of a harmless insect!
Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, among others, illustrated the book.
“The Head-ache” and “Cat-sitting," shown here, are Cruikshank’s work.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.