Before recently teaching The Country Wife as an example of Restoration Comedy I cheerfully reread the play and was pleased to be reminded of quite how funny it actually is. Having laughed my way through the play imagine my surprise when one of my classes opened with the question: ‘Is it OK that I thought this was quite funny?’ Or rather, I would have been surprised if this hadn’t come up before. Teaching Renaissance literature last semester one of my classes on Volpone opened with a confession along the lines of: ‘I’m sorry, but this just made me laugh.’ No need to apologise, it’s a comedy.
I find this even more interesting when you get into the realms of mid-eighteenth century literary culture. This was an age which saw the likes of Hogarth, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (200 years later and this is still the funniest book I’ve read). And yet, when teaching Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope (who many would agree to be the very forefathers of English Satire) I still detected this anxiety – or rather hesitance – in acknowledging the humorous qualities of historic literary texts. The instinct is to privilege complexity, seriousness and an earnest or weighty style of reader address.
Granted, this is an issue. I remember from my own undergraduate days that it was hard to laugh at Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale whilst trying to read it through a feminist lens in order to write an easy worth 70% of my module grade. Studying can be stressful, and it’s difficult to appreciate the jokes when the pressure is on.
But I don’t think this phenomenon is confined to the undergraduate seminar room. I remember bumping into one of my undergraduate tutors (a literary theorist) shortly after starting my PhD. When I told him it was going to be about eighteenth century texts he grimaced and said (playfully): ‘All that stuff’s a bit dull though, isn’t it?’ Later that day I sent him a lengthy email about just how hilarious Fielding’s Shamela really is if you’ve previously endured the novel that it parodies: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. In the end we came to a consensus that there is a lot to laugh at, but often you have to do a little digging to fully appreciate the punchline. But surely such effort and delayed gratification only supplements the pay off? You laugh twice as hard at a joke that you work twice as hard to get.
Perhaps in the eyes of the public the eighteenth-century more generally does have something of an image problem: in film and TV you either get pirates, sex or period drama (or sometimes all of the above). Where are the big screen adaptations of Joseph Andrews and Humphrey Clinker? They’d be hailed as comedy gold and make a fortune at the box office (Steve Coogan’s Tristram Shandy adaptation A Cock and Bull Story is the singular example of a film that actually does this and it proved critically and commercially successful whilst also being staggeringly clever and laugh out loud funny along the way).
Despite public perceptions and student scepticism, these texts ARE funny and should be seen as such. It’s partly the point of them. Philip Sidney referred to it as ‘sweetening the pill’, politeness guru Anthony Ashley Cooper argued that ‘mirth, for the most part, cuts through weighty matters with greater firmness and ease than seriousness’; and essayist Joseph Addison claimed in The Freeholder that ‘those who supply the world with such entertainments of mirth as are instructive, or at least harmless, may be thought to deserve well of mankind.’ Something needs to be done to rebrand public conceptions of the eighteenth century – to bring back the laughs – and to help students recognise comedy as a genre and discuss it as such.
A Cock and Bull Story is a step in the right direction, and I have for a long time suspected that the recent collaborations of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have openly embraced their eighteenth-century influences (read Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and then immediately watch The Trip with this in mind. Their upcoming Grand Tour promises to foreground these eighteenth century influences to an even greater extent.) This English department also has a relatively new core module on ‘Genre’ which raises and confronts these very questions; equipping students with the lexis and approach needed to seriously deal with comedy.
Before signing off, to prove my point, I will close with a few lines from my all time favourite book, Henry McKenzie’s 1777 satire on sentiment and sensibility: The Man of Feeling (go and read it now, it is both hilarious and short). In the fictional preface Mackenzie takes on the ‘discovered document trope’ frequently found as a device used for framing the main narrative in a great many eighteenth century novels. Often such authors would claim that they have edited an ancient text that they have found, or intercepted a secret text of great value of worth that they intend to print in the interests of the public good (for more on this see my previous post ‘A True Account of Sublime Terror and Paranormal Activity’). Instead, the ‘discovered document’ from which MacKenzie’s novel has been fictionally constructed has a rather less worthy origin. Whilst walking in the country Mackenzie’s editor encounters a gentleman out shooting. He asks him about a house in the distance, to which the gentleman reveals that he is very knowledgeable on the subject, having come into possession of the ‘private history’ of the man who once lived their:
‘Soon after I was made curate, he left the parish and went no body knows whither; and in his room was found a bundle of papers, which was brought to me by his landlord. I began to read them, but soon grew weary with the task; for, besides that the hand is intolerably bad, I could never find the author on the one strain for two chapters together: and I don’t believe there’s a single syllogism from beginning to end.’
‘I should be be glad to see this medley’ said I. ‘You shall see it now,’ answered the curate, ‘for I always carry it along with me a-shooting.’ ‘How came it so torn?’
‘Tis excellent wadding,’ said the curate.