I’ve read Jane Collier’s An Essay on Ingeniously Tormenting a number of times but never reviewed it, so I thought I’d read it again and see what I have to say. it’s a brilliant idea, putting a satirical spin on two of the most popular genres for eighteenth-century, middle-class readers, the morally improving book and the ‘art of…’ format of ‘how to’ books. It’s a more subtle work than a simple ‘how to be nasty’ kind of work, it’s the art of ‘ingeniously tormenting’ and it is rather ingenious.
My copy includes the ‘advertisement to the reader’ from the second edition which explains there not being many additions to the work because the author was taught “if you have nothing to say, don’t say it”, a maxim I wish more writers would adhere to. it also explains that she is not going to pad out the beginning with complementary letters she’s received, it’s not that she hasn’t received them, it’s that people are so full of “good nature and universal benevolence” that they’d assume the letters were made up. To be fair, such letters often were.
The book then goes through numerous relationships, explaining how to torment best within them. it’s interesting to note that until the chapter on friends at the end, those relationships all have unbalanced power structures and the tormentor is always the powerful one. As much as I’d have liked a sequel about how the less empowered could torment those above them, it’s fitting that this book aims only at those with power already, as it’s really an attack on domestic abuse of power.
Tormenting isn’t about causing great harm, it’s not a deep jab with a knife but gently prodding the victim to “waste by degrees”. An ingenious tormentor starts of nicely, sets themselves up as friend or kindly employer before wearing the victim down. Raised expectations of kindness not only create more pain when they are let down, but mask the tormenting as it begins. Kindness exists in the book’s conception of the world but it is a rare commodity to be spent frugally and for specific purposes.
Examples of this include nursing a sick servant through bad health so that the tormentor can use that debt of gratitude at every moment after. Not that it matters so much when a servant is bullied into leaving, they are a commodity that can be easily replaced. If the tormentor has taken in a poor woman out of charity, there are two ways to go. The pretty ones can be teased about their looks and stupidity, infantilised, talked down to and treated as a pretty little pet. The smart, ugly ones can be given the “usual” insults given to smart women, make sure to call her a “wit” often.
Children are great. Not only can they be tormented, and actually have less legal recourse than anyone else in society, but they can be raised to torment others and even themselves. “Breed them up properly, to be a torment to themselves if they live, and a plague to all your acquaintance.” The key to this is doting neglect, let the children do anything and have anything they want. Only punish them about inconsequential things, like getting muddy or losing a bow and only hit them when you’re angry. There’s a whole section in the book about how to ‘accidentally’ kill unwanted children without losing a kindly reputation or being executed for murder - it’s essentially to let children do all the risky/stupid things that come into their minds without stopping them. It’s most important to quash any signs of intelligence in children, “unless you can in some way to turn it to your profit”.
Lovers only get a paragraph, they torment each other with the same instinct they have “to perform the act of respiration.”
As for friends, the most equal relationship in the book, it’s all about picking the right ones. Many people may seem to be natural tormentees, talking of benevolence and friendship but they can’t be trusted. It’s when a friend is actually seen performing a good act that it’s clear they are tormentable. There are many ways to torment them; feign illness and ruin parties, tell others their secrets as if by accident, be alternately clingy and pushy - the right friend will take everything and come back for more.
This book gives many practical ways to torment those around and even includes an exemplar of a long weekend and how to ruin it for everyone. The best thing is how it ventriloquises the tormentors, giving specific insults to use and excuses to make. There’s a real sense that every piece of nastiness in the book has been observed by Jane Collier, whether to her or to someone else and she is loving every minute of playing the role of tormentor rather than victim.
A fable at the end of the book recontextualises the whole book, taking away any feeling that the author is actually a nasty person and leaving a thoughtful sting. It’s about a poem signed with an L that perfectly encapsulates the moment a prey animal is savaged. Some thing the lion wrote it, or the leopard - but it’s actually the lamb, as only the prey can really understand the process of savaging. In this way it becomes clear that Jane Collier herself has been tormentee rather than tormentor and that this book is her revenge.
It’s a shame Jane Collier died so young, this is a really funny and confident work. Her only other piece was written with Sarah Fielding and called The Cry, which I’d absolutely love to read. She died the year after, having planned a sequel called The Laugh. I’d love to have more from her but she died when she was 40. It’s a real shame.