Comedy and Culture

Comedy and Culture: England 1820-1900

Copyright Date: 1980
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Comedy and Culture
    Book Description:

    Comedy cannot be understood as an abstract critical concept, argues Roger Henkle; it 'must be studied in specific cultural and historical contexts. From this point of view he examines the development of literary comedy in nineteenth-century England, and shows how comic modes and techniques were used to express and release the tensions of the middle class during periods of both rapid cultural change and relative stability.

    Originally published in 1980.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5792-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-19)

    The genesis of this book lies in an observation by the British critic L. C. Knights that “profitless generalizations are more frequent in criticism of comedy than in criticism of other forms of literature.”¹ Knights made that remark in 1933, before the rich and valuable studies of comedy by Northrop Frye, Susanne Langer, and Arthur Koestler were published, so the indictment is less valid than it once was. But the premise of his complaint still holds: most of what has been written about the nature of comic expression neglects the literary, individual, and social contexts within which that expression occurs....

  5. 1 1820-1845: The Anxieties of Sublimation, and Middle-Class Myths
    (pp. 20-57)

    The dominating fictional phenomenon in England during the 1820s and 1830s was the novel of high fashion and coxcombry that came to be known as the Silver Fork novel. Its origins could perhaps be traced to the late eighteenth-century novels on manners, but nothing of a literary nature could quite account for its sudden popularity. The fashionable novel reflected the volatile social change of the times and the excited interest in aristocratic mores. The appetite of the growing middle-class reading public for glimpses behind the boudoir doors of the upper crust and into the gaming rooms of Crockford’s, The Cocoa...

  6. 2 Peacock, Thackeray, and Jerrold: The Comedy of “Radical” Disaffection
    (pp. 58-110)

    In chapter one, we observed the inclination of several pre-Victorian writers to displace whatever anxieties they may have had about the age into pure comic action. In doing so, they produced what is often a characteristic comic “environment,” or mode of presentation. Their works have a nerveless, anesthetic quality: passions and intensities are sacrificed to ludicrous effect, and the most appalling mayhem takes place matter-of-factly. We see this clearly in Marryat’sSnarleyyow, where fiendish violence erupts without any apparent motivation, where death and dismemberment have no meaning, no direct significance in terms of the work, and where serendipitous good luck...

  7. 3 Early Dickens: Metamorphosis, Psychic Disorientation, and the Small Fry
    (pp. 111-144)

    Charles Dickens is the great comic writer of the middle class. “All the resources of the bourgeois epic were in his grasp,”¹ as his friend George Henry Lewes observed. In this one writer we see how comedy is turned from social schematization to the expression of an evolving personal experience and how subtly it serves to convey the ambiguity of one man’s relationship to the middle class of which he was a part. Dickens’ career bridged the euphoric social expansiveness of the 1830s and the mid-Victorian internal disillusionment of the 1860s. His earlySketches by Bozcreates the freewheeling impression...

  8. 4 Later Dickens: Disenchantment, Transmogrification, and Ambivalence
    (pp. 145-184)

    The sea change in comedy during the early and mid-Victorian period is that from the comedy of social symbolization (ideas and concerns that represent themselves through depiction of action and as relations among broad social categories) to that expressing internalized concerns. The change was taking place in several quarters, but no more strikingly than in the art of Charles Dickens, where his comic powers shaped the change. From his disillusionment with the middle class, Dickens was obliged to begin reconceiving his comic characterization. A process of transmogrification—a reworking that took his creations toward almost grotesque formations—began to dominate...

  9. 5 Hood, Gilbert, Carroll, Jerrold, and the Grossmiths: Comedy from Inside
    (pp. 185-237)

    Light, gende humor set the comic tone of the mid-Victorian decades, the 1850s and 1860s. The magazines that sprang into being during the period were a far cry from the sensationalist journals of the 1830s and early 1840s. The sketches of boisterous London low life and high jinks on the road that dominated previous comic literature had virtually passed away. Replacing them were vignettes of social snobbery in St. James Park and wry observations on the types one meets in railway coaches. Political commentary tended to be arch in contrast to the slapdash ridicule of an earlier day, and instead...

  10. 6 Meredith and Butler: Comedy as Lyric, High Culture, and the Bourgeois Trap
    (pp. 238-295)

    It is inevitable that an exotic type from a Peacockian dinner party should turn up and say unnerving things in George Meredith’s first major novel,The Ordeal of Richard Feverel(1859). Meredith was Peacock’s son-in-law for a time, and they apparently spent many a difficult moment with each other. But the two had genuine literary affinities. Meredith, like Peacock, was the literary skeptic who always stood outside the dominant cultural tradition. He was, like Peacock, a player with ideas and a mordant connoisseur of social foibles and Romantic posturing. They differed in one crucial way, however: while Peacock’s comedy never...

  11. 7 Wilde and Beerbohm: The Wit of the Avant-Garde, The Charm of Failure
    (pp. 296-352)

    In this chapter, we shall look principally at what is known asfin-de-siècleliterature and at two writers in particular, Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm, whose faith in the powers of elaboration exceed any we have seen in later Victorian artists. This move toward elaboration appears to be a logical one; we noted that Meredith’s manner of involuting his own positions differed from Dickens’ in that it was more reflexive; Meredith’s was a comedy that worked off itself with less attention to social implications. Presumably, as appreciation for the transformative capacities of art grows and the artist begins to sense...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 353-368)
  13. Index
    (pp. 369-373)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 374-374)