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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The (Relative Paucity of) Humor in Persuasion

Live and learn. After writing the following in my previous post about the negative opinions expressed by Adelle Waldman about Persuasion….

Waldman: “[Persuasion] is also the least funny of Austen’s books.” END QUOTE

Me: I bet we could get a great thread going in which people could list all their favorite funny lines and funny passages in Persuasion—not overtly funny like the witty farce of P&P or Emma, or the charming repartee of Northanger Abbey, but subtly darkly funny like the humor of MP and S&S. Anyone who wants to start that thread, please just speak up—otherwise, I will, in a few days.

…..I did go back to Persuasion expecting to find two dozen funny lines to bring forward, to show that Persuasion, despite its oft-noted “autumnal” mood, still had lots of humor too.

Well, I was surprised to find that I could not find even a dozen genuinely funny lines, and even if in my skimming I missed a few, that’s still not a whole lot for even as short a novel as Persuasion, and about  1/10 of the funny lines in P&P, if that.

For what it’s worth, then, here are the lines I identified as funny, does anyone have any others to bring forward? :

Ch. 1: “Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage;…and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened…”   I love the narrator’s droll irony about Sir Walter’s narcissism.

Ch. 3: “ ”…A prize indeed would Kellynch Hall be to him; rather the greatest prize of all, let him have taken ever so many before; hey, Shepherd?"  Mr Shepherd laughed, as he knew he must, at this wit…”
And I love this take on Mr. Shepherd’s adept  toadying to Sir Walter, which is enhanced when you realize that Sir Walter really did show some surprising wit in some of his comments about sailors’ faces, as I blogged earlier this year.

Ch 5: “…The Baronet will never set the Thames on fire, but there seems to be no harm in him."- The Admiral can be counted on for some wonderfully colorful expressions, but only some of them are genuinely funny, and this one works for me.

Ch. 6: The Mr Musgroves had their own game to guard, and to destroy….” I wish there were more of such “throwaway” lines as the quiet but fierce sarcasm of this one, which has a P&P-like epigrammatism.

Ch. 6: “[Charles Musgrove] had very good spirits, which never seemed much affected by his wife's occasional lowness, bore with her unreasonableness sometimes to Anne's admiration, and upon the whole, though there was very often a little disagreement (in which she had sometimes more share than she wished, being appealed to by both parties), they might pass for a happy couple.” And again, that last few words is a wonderfully dark punch line.

Ch. 8: “Ah! she was a dear old Asp to me. She did all that I wanted. I knew she would. I knew that we should either go to the bottom together, or that she would be the making of me; and I never had two days of foul weather all the time I was at sea in her. “  I’ve written a number of times about this “Asp/bottom joke”, which JA milks for all it’s worth. It might just be the best one in all of her novels, because of the clever disguise of the sexual humor.

Ch. 11: “For, though shy, he did not seem reserved; it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints; and having talked of poetry, the richness of the present age, and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets, trying to ascertain whether Marmion or The Lady of the Lake were to be preferred, and how ranked the Giaour and The Bride of Abydos; and moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced, he showed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.”

That must be the longest quietly satirical passage in the entire novel. As I’ve written before, I love the two deliberately jarring non sequiturs about the pronunciation of the Giaour and Benwick’s looking so entirely as if he meant to be understood.

Ch. 13: I have done very little besides sending away some of the large looking-glasses from my dressing-room, which was your father's. A very good man, and very much the gentleman I am sure: but I should think, Miss Elliot," (looking with serious reflection), "I should think he must be rather a dressy man for his time of life. Such a number of looking-glasses! oh Lord! there was no getting away from one's self. So I got Sophy to lend me a hand, and we soon shifted their quarters; and now I am quite snug, with my little shaving glass in one corner, and another great thing that I never go near." The gem in that little speech is “there’s no getting away from one’s self.”

And then, really no LOL lines in the last 11 chapters that caught my eye…..

Then, after collecting the above examples of humor in Persuasion, I checked the online archives, and lo and behold, found a wonderful, thought-provoking exchange in May 1999  in Janeites:

Paul Janse: In Persuasion we have Anne's sister Mary of course, and she is occasionally very funny, but Sir Walter and miss Eliot, who are also meant as a kind of caricature, somehow do not interest me in the least. I am not saying that humor is the most important, or even one of the most important aspects of literature, but I do think that it is one of Jane Austens strongest points and that it is rather noticeably lacking in Persuasion.

(the late) June Shaw: I have been musing about Paul's post about the lack of humor in _P_. One could say that perhaps Jane Austen was not interested in humor during that period of her life but then how would one explain her beginning _S_ which is chuck full of comic characters. _P_ is my favorite Jane Austen novel and I don't think that will change. _MP_ is the novel that has changed on my personal list from fifth to second. But to get back to the subject: Why so little comedy in _P_ ? In _P_1, the video, there is a very funny scene in which Charles Hayter is trying to tell Henrietta about his prospects as to the curacy under Dr. Shirley. Louisa is at the window anxiously awaiting Capt. Wentworth's arrival and Henrietta is much more interested in that than in Charles' discussion. With some work Charles Hayter could have been a very funny character in the first volume of _P_. How did Jane write? I have read that she wrote very quickly and then shelved the manuscript to be reviewed later for changes and significant re-writing. I don't believe that Jane Austen felt that _P_ was ready for publication. What would she have done with it had she the time and energy for re-writing ? Perhaps she would have noticed that it needed more comedy or perhaps she wanted it to be autumnal. (Nancy, it doesn't matter that Keats and Austen were not artistic contemporaries, but _P_ and Keats do feel the same and I care as much for Keats as I do Austen. ) I agree with Gard that Lady Russell needed to be enhanced and I feel the same about William Elliot and Mrs. Clay. Not them individually, but their tete-a-tetes could have been very funny. Mr. Elliot conning Mrs. Clay into thinking that he might marry her. Who would have won that battle of cunning? And we could have seen Admiral Croft in other amusing situations. He was obviously a man who was not completely at home on dry land and Mrs. Croft was so perfect to steer him on the right path. But, again, I return to the thought that Jane Austen wanted it autumnal. I shall wish there might have been more but I shall always love it just as it is.  END QUOTE

I think June Shaw is right—the potential for some classic Austenian humor in dialog was there in many scenes, where she simply passed on the opportunity to make it a much funnier novel. Like June, I have never felt that as a lack, but now at least I see Waldman’s point, which was indeed well taken.

Cheers, Arnie
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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