Frances Wilson

Cutting Through Humbug

Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant 1789–1837


Faber & Faber 400pp £25 order from our bookshop

Cant is one of those kooky, quaint four-letter words which have long since lost their power to offend. Like ‘culture’, the slipperiness of its meaning makes it almost impossible to define, and much of Ben Wilson’s annoyingly brilliant analysis of the period called by Byron ‘the age of cant’ could serve as an appendix to Raymond Williams’s Key Words. ‘To apply it to someone is to accuse them of sloppy thinking, if you are being kind, or, at the very worst, of a total lack of sincerity. In the former sense, cant (or humbug) is a language of borrowed sentiments … It is society’s clichés which infect the mind like the refrain of a popular song and are repeated without reflection.’ To some (such as Thomas Bowdler, whose expurgated edition of Shakespeare delighted the nation), the word ‘cant’ was simply a reminder to a foul-mouthed youth of the importance of politeness, or cleaning up the mess left after a party, while to others cant was synonymous with insincerity, hypocrisy, dogma, imposture, and jargon. 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holla… ,
    • RT : One of my favourite literary magazines is celebrating 40 years this year. Here is the September edition of… ,
    • 'Now that the Thames is too fast-flowing to freeze, its spirit’s devotees ... have found other climes for their pri… ,
    • 'Bythell glowers past his till at a world in slow free fall.' on the travails of a second-hand book… ,
    • 'It is a scent of animal wrath, of instinctive need, of brutal life which affects the cultured nostrils of our civi… ,
    • 'The day produced countless stories of chance, of people taking one route or another without realising that the dec… ,
    • In this month's 'Silenced Voices', looks at the case of Azimjon Askarov, the journalist and human rights… ,