Humor in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: A Reference Guide

Humor in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: A Reference Guide

Humor in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: A Reference Guide

Humor in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: A Reference Guide


During the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, there was a wide range of literary humor. Much of this humor was satiric, ranging from the sharp barbs of Pope and Swift to the more subtle but stinging wordplay of Addison. In the 18th century, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne wrote humorous novels, in which they satirized society. During the 19th century, writers such as Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, and Carlyle continued to use humor to comment on the issues of their day. This reference book examines how British writers of the 18th and 19th centuries used humor in their works. An introductory chapter overviews humor in British literature of the era, and sections then treat humor in British literature of the 18th century and in three periods of the 19th century. Each of these sections includes a short introduction, followed by chronologically arranged profiles of various authors. Each profile discusses how the author used humor and includes extensive bibliographic information.


In relating eighteenth-century English satire to satire in general, J. D. Browning states that the aim of satire was to reform the world through perceptive ridicule. "The satirist saw what was wrong with the world; the reader reciprocated by agreement and amendment" (Browning 1). Both in literature and in the fine arts, satire had a double audience--the person attacked, and the spectators to the assault. Almost by definition, satire is about "other people." "The person attacked is an assumed, rather than an actual reader." Furthermore, the moral value of satire may come after the time of enjoyment and appreciation (Browning 2). Browning feels that the reading of satire is a form of "ethical education."

In the celebrated "contract" scene of Hogarth Marriage à la Mode, for example, all the participants are vacuously self-absorbed, at once tense and inactive. The groom takes snuff, the bride fiddles with a kerchief and a ring, the father gestures to himself and his family tree; all are stiff, ill-at- ease and awkward. But Hogarth's patterns draw the eye not to a contrasting image of genuine family love or mutual human respect. Rather he directs us, in the bottom left-hand corner, to two dogs, side by side, relaxed, healthy, and alert. Their attractive vitality throws into contrast not the folly of the humans but their discomfort. Like all great satirists, Hogarth is not lashing vice or pointing out defects; he is reminding us of the tension of human life and the pity of it. (Browning 4)

Browning also notes that the satire of eighteenth-century cartoonists is richly parodic in nature. "Gillray's statesmen loll gracelessly in attitudes only minutely differing from those of Rubens's self-assured burghers. Cruikshank's Prince Regent, savagely etched in such a series as The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder, has, as it were in pentimento, the images of Van Dyck's Stuart court" (Browning 6).

There is a great range in the satire that has come out of the British literary tradition. C. S. Lewis said the following: "A satiric portrait by Pope or Swift is like a thunderclap; the Addisonian method is more like the slow operations of ordinary nature, loosening stones, blunting outlines, modifying a whole landscape with 'silent overgrowings' so that the change can never quite be reversed again" (Berry 3).

Satire is a powerful weapon, and Isaac D'Israeli has noted that "Satirists, if they escape the scourge of the law, have reason to dread the cane of the satirized." "Dryden was beaten up by the hired thugs of the Earl of Rochester . . . Swift seems to have been denied a bishopric because Queen Anne was too literal-minded a reader to follow the religious parable in A Tale of a Tub. Defoe heavily ironic pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters . . .

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