Saturday, 12 September 2015

Where humour comes from in novels

Recently when I was reading a novel published this year in Australia I thought about where the humour in it came from. Partly this was because it seemed to me to have the same kind of humour as you find in the novels of Jane Austen, a writer I have written here about in the past because of the degree of acquaintance I have with her.

The thing is that when I first read Jane Austen, back in 2002, her novels quickly came to represent for me a level of excellence for the craft. I was struck by how mature they seemed despite having been published 200 years ago, and I came to the conclusion that she had discovered something special which she had rendered in characters and plots. What that was, was at first not entirely clear, but I had the inkling that it had something to do with the even tone she employed throughout her novels to describe every kind of emotion experienced by her characters from the greatest joy through to the deepest sorrow.

In my readings around her work I came a across a lot of books published prior to her era of publishing activity that lacked this sort of authorial disengagement. In epistolary novels, for example, you can get some very strange orthography indeed when the writer is trying to express in his characters' extremes of emotion. The sentences break up in a cascade of dashes as the writer of the letter loses control of her emotions and they go careening off into the realms of the inexpressible. For Austen this would not do. In her juvenilia, a series of short comical sketches written for domestic consumption during the 1780s and early -90s, she experimented with tone while also playing in a very critical way with the kinds of novelistic tropes - as she saw them - that contained the emotional highs and lows she had grown suspect of over years of reading novels.

It should be remembered that the Austen family were great readers. Everyone from youngest daughter to the head of the family read novels for pleasure, so Austen had a wide audience for her hilarious sallies into the genre. Those were also the days of visiting, and a sheaf of papers would no doubt be taken along down the country lanes when the women went to pay a visit on a friend or neighbour. The eighteenth century in England was a great time for books.

What Austen came up with in order to support the kind of emotional registers she sought was something that also enabled her to incorporate a quantity of humour into her novels. This was to flatten out the expressive values of events throughout her novel. If everything was described with a delivery at a regular level of expressiveness she would naturally produce humour because what was something that in the realm of the novel was actually quite high-toned for the character would be flat within the locus of description regulating things between the characters and the reader, in the fictive space itself.

What results is a kind of loaded irony. When we think of irony however we normally think of something that is cold and calculating, but in Austen irony nevertheless allows her characters' emotions to emerge in the fictional space that both the author and the reader are present in. What results is a kind of "present" author, as well, which can further enrich the reading experience. This third presence offers a further sort of "distance" between the characters in the novel and the reader.

The writers Austen herself admired came closest to achieving something of the scale of what she herself achieved. There was Richardson, for example, but Austen was careful to single out the flattest and most "novelistic" of Richardson's epistolary works, Sir Charles Grandison. There is also Maria Edgeworth, the Irish writer who was just a few years older than Austen herself but whose fame at the time was far greater than hers. And then there was George Crabbe, the naturalist parson-poet whose short stories in iambic pentameters, like Austen's works, belong to the Augustan stream within the Romantic river.

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