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Humour in the novel 1800-1850 : the moral vision and the autonomous imagination

By Peter Fairclough


This thesis attempts to trace the development\ud of two kinds of humorous sensibility in the fiction\ud of the period 1800-1850, and to analyse the tensions\ud between them. Humour as inherited from the\ud eighteenth century contained diverse and sometimes\ud contradictory elements which were strongly developed\ud in the Romantic period, so nineteenth century\ud humour could recommend an ideal individual morality,\ud express social optimism, and hold out the hope of\ud social reconciliation; yet at the same time it could\ud subversively celebrate individual autonomy at the\ud expense of social and moral concerns, and transform\ud reality through ironic perspectives or grotesque\ud forms. Edgeworth used the humorous character for\ud didactic social purposes in her Irish novels; Scott,\ud however, made his humorous characters the main\ud imaginative embodiments of the social themes of his\ud Scottish novels, maintaining a balance between\ud didactic function and individual idiosyncrasy, a\ud balance sustained by Galt in his novels about local\ud history. But sceptical tendencies appeared: Austen\ud warned that the humorous character was a threat to\ud social order; Peacock's humorous characters were\ud finally overwhelmed by a rancorous satirical spirit;\ud and in Don Ju an, Byron used a version of Romantic\ud Irony to undermine moral assertion. Romantic\ud theories of humour were untouched by any taint of\ud scepticism; such theories stressed the moral\ud function of the humorous sensibility, seeing it as\ud a genial and reconciling force based on love for\ud mankind (the subversive power of the grotesque\ud mode was viewed with suspicion); and Sartor Resartus\ud embodied the highest moral and metaphysical\ud possibilities of the humorous imagination. Beyond\ud this, however, Thackeray's development of ironical\ud perspectives further undermiined humour's positive\ud and optimistic tendencies; and in Dickens's early\ud novels there is a profound tension between the\ud moral and social tendencies of the humour, and the\ud increasingly anarchic, grotesque directions it\ud takes. Eliot rejected the egotistical, ironic . and\ud grotesque possibilities of humour, instead seeing\ud moral improvement and social reconciliation as a\ud matter of coming to terms with unattractive reality

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