Andrea/Cara here, musing today about the power of the pen—or in this case, the quill. In Murder on Black Swan Lane, the first book in my new Regency-set mystery series, which will be released on June 27th, I decided to make my heroine, Charlotte Sloane, a satirical cartoonist, as it seemed to me to be a perfect profession for someone who also proves skilled at unraveling diabolical mysteries. After all, skewering the political and social foibles of an era requires a razor-sharp eye, a keen understanding of human nature—warts and all!—and a sardonic sense of humor . . . not to speak of a vast network of eyes and ears to keep informed of all the latest gossip and scandals.
I found wonderful inspiration for Charlotte in the real-life Regency artists, as the era is considered by many to be the golden age of satirical prints. Two of my favorites are James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, who combined cutting edge wit and perception with exquisite artistic skills.
Gillray is considered the father of the political cartoon, and among of his favorite targets were George III and his profligate sons. (The King is said to have remarked of Gillray’s drawings, “I don’t understand these caricatures.” In his case, ignorance was bliss, because Gillray was not one to pull his punches.) The politics of in the interminable Napoleonic wars, as well as the vanities of the beau monde were also subjects for his scathing wit. (The print at the top of the blog is considered a classic—showing the world being sliced up like a plum pudding.) And so keen were his perceptions that his prints are also a wonderful commentary on the fashion, ornament and architecture of the era, making them invaluable resources on the tiny details of everyday life for historians (and writers!)
Rowlandson studied at the Royal Academy for a time, and also pursued figure drawing in Paris, His work displays a highly developed artistic flair as well as a knack for caricature. He did much of his satirical work for the well-known publisher Rudolph Ackermann, and also illustrated the literary works of Smollet, Sterne and Goldsmith. Rowlandson was slightly gentler than Gillray, and focused more on societal commentary than politics. He also did lovely watercolors of country life and rigors of continental travel. (I remember several years ago Jo Beverley being delighted with a print I posted because she finally could see what a certain type of traveling coach looked like!)
Satirical cartoonists have thrived throughout history, and today we have no dearth of sharp-eyed, sharp-witted artists who keep a basilisk eye on every facet of society. I don’t know about you, but I adore The New Yorker magazine, not only for its insightful writing but also for the humor and cutting edge commentary of its cartoons. Roz Chast is a favorite with her trenchant observations on the stresses of modern life . . . and then there’s Booth and his dogs. Funny how the quirk of an ear or the shape of a mouth can be so supremely expressive.
I’m also a big fan of Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury. (For those who don’t know his history, Garry started drawing his strip, which was called Bull Tales back then, for the student newspaper as an undergrad at Yale. He took great glee in skewering campus life, from dating, to the football team, to the Black Panthers and the Vietnam War protests. (The above one pokes a little fun at the earnestness of fellow undergrad John Kerry.) The students absolutely loved the strip, and his wit caught the attention of media . . . and the rest, as they say, is history.) Like the best satirical artists, he has the gift at making us laugh, while at the same time making us think about the serious issues that lie beneath the humor.
For me, historical and modern day cartoonists share an elemental quality: a passion for shining a light on the foibles of society. Their pens expose injustice, hypocrisy and outright criminal acts. And as a picture is often truly more powerful than a thousand words, the impact of their work often helps focus the public’s eye on the less-than-admirable actions of our leaders and high profile business moguls and media celebrities. I appreciate their courage and conviction, for satire—the best of which makes us laugh at our own pretensions as well as those of others—is a powerful voice for keeping vanity, greed and the hunger for power from running amuck. I’ve created Charlotte Sloane as a tribute the artists of the past and present, and their fundamental idealism in taking on the ills and excesses of society. Sharp quills challenge us to take a closer look at the world around us, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all for the good!
Do you like satirical cartoons? Do you have a favorite cartoonist, either in historical times or present day? I’ll be giving away an advance e-book ARC of Murder on Black Swan Lane to one winner, chosen at random from those who leave a comment here between now and Sunday evening.