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Jane Austen is funny, and the Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness is positively hilarious

June 11, 2007

We begin to suspect that The Times is just posting stuff to mess with us now. A response to the article from last week about female comic authors, including Jane Austen, provoked a response from one Des MacHale, pointed out to us by Alert Janeite Tony A.

Over the years, many have made this claim to me but when challenged to produce a passage, a paragraph – even a sentence – of Austen’s that would evoke in me a laugh, or even the semblance of a smile, they fail miserably. Their next line of defence is usually that Austen’s alleged wit is too subtle for me to appreciate, or that all her works are pervaded with a witty essence of some undefined kind. In the many volumes of Wit I have edited, containing more than 20,000 humorous and witty quotations from many sources, I failed to find anything by Austen worthy of inclusion.

So let us be certain we perfectly understand Mr. MacHale: because Jane Austen doesn’t write humor that can be boiled down to a one-liner, she’s not funny? Okay!

Well, Norman Geras of Normblog disagrees.

Well, I must be reading different books from him. Whether or not her humour makes it into his collections, I think you’d have to be wilfully grouchy to miss it.


In an unrelated posting, we happened across a post on One Minute Book Reviews that says it in a rather more long-winded but still pithy way:

To say as much is to risk suggesting that Jane Austen’s world is basically a rather trivial and frothy one. But no discerning reader of hers could hold such an opinion, for she is a serious writer of comedy. In her world the relative unimportance of economic, professional, and political problems permits a concentrating of attention upon personal relations and the quality of living that they make possible. The issue is uniting of moral and social graces, the reconciliation of form and spontaneity.

Oh, and Mr. MacHale? You want funny lines? We’ll give you funny lines.

By this time the report of the accident had spread among the workmen and boatmen about the Cobb, and many were collected near them, to be useful if wanted, at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady, nay, two dead young ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report.

One of our favorites, but it works better in context; juxtaposed with the drama of Louisa Musgrove’s fall on the Cobb, it provides a welcome moment of relieving laughter.

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.

Another favorite; but perhaps one has to experience Robert Ferrars’ rattle to truly appreciate it.

“As far as I have had opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars.”

“And what are they?”

“A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.”

How many Henry Tilney lines could we post? He’s got a million of ‘em. Go ahead, post your own favorites!

Leave a Comment
  1. Julie P. permalink
    June 11, 2007 6:58 am

    “Louisa Wentworth’s fall on the Cobb?”

    My copy of the book says Frederick marries Anne, not Louisa. Hmmmmmmmmmmm…..

  2. June 11, 2007 7:54 am

    Oy. *smacks self with Clue Trout*

  3. Kylie permalink
    June 11, 2007 8:15 am

    Mr Tilney telling Catherine what she’ll write in her journal makes me laugh every time:

    “Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings, plain black shoes; appeared to much advantage, but was strangely harassed by a queer half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”

  4. Jessica permalink
    June 11, 2007 8:54 am

    Among many many others, I love Mary Bennet’s sound advice to women:
    “A woman’s reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, and she can not be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”
    hahaha! This never fails to amuse me! Especially because she chooses the most inappropriate time display her wisdom. :-P

  5. TinaB permalink
    June 11, 2007 10:15 am

    Here’s one that got a laugh from my husband when I read Persuasion aloud to him:

    “They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him; they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier, indeed.”

  6. TinaB permalink
    June 11, 2007 10:37 am

    Oh! How about Mr. Palmer?

    “I did not know I contradicted anybody when I called your mother ill bred.”

  7. Mags permalink
    June 11, 2007 11:24 am

    From P&P–two long sentences but brilliant and hilarious:

    Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.

  8. RuthM permalink
    June 11, 2007 11:27 am

    I think this is the most visually comic sequence in Austen – ironically it comes from Mansfield Park:

    [Tom Bertram is speaking] “And as to my father’s being absent, it is so far from an objection, that I consider it rather as a motive; for the expectation of his return must be a very anxious period to my mother; and if we can be the means of amusing that anxiety, and keeping up her spirits for the next few weeks, I shall think our time very well spent, and so, I am sure, will he. It is a very anxious period for her.”

    As he said this, each looked towards their mother. Lady Bertram, sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquility, was just falling into a gentle doze, while Fanny was getting through the few difficulties of her work for her.

    Edmund smiled and shook his head.

    “By Jove! this won’t do,” cried Tom, throwing himself into a chair with a hearty laugh. “To be sure, my dear mother, your anxiety—I was unlucky there.”

    “What is the matter?” asked her ladyship, in the heavy tone of one half–roused; “I was not asleep.”

  9. Julie P. permalink
    June 11, 2007 1:48 pm

    I still love this from Persuasion:

    Sir Walter, without hesitation, declared the Admiral to be the best-looking sailor he had ever met with, and went so far as to say, that, if his own man might have had the arranging of his hair, he should not be ashamed of being seen with him any where; and the Admiral, with sympathetic cordiality, observed to his wife as they drove back through the Park, “I thought we should soon come to a deal, my dear, in spite of what they told us at Taunton. The Baronet will never set the Thames on fire, but there seems no harm in him”: reciprocal compliments, which would have been esteemed about equal.

  10. June 11, 2007 2:14 pm

    What a delicious thread this is! So many great lines! :-D
    When I have more time I will post some of my favourite lines as well. :-)

  11. June 11, 2007 3:25 pm

    Ok, this is not exatly a ‘line’, but I find it very amusing! It’s Mrs Jennings talking to Marianne in S&S, and especially the last line makes the whole scene hilarious (although what Mrs Jennings says is very painful and sad too…)!

    [i]”How is she, Miss Dashwood? Poor thing! she looks very bad. No wonder. Aye, it is but too true. He is to be married very soon — a good-for-nothing fellow! I have no patience with him. Mrs. Taylor told me of it half an hour ago, and she was told it by a particular friend of Miss Grey herself, else I am sure I should not have believed it; and I was almost ready to sink as it was. Well, said I, all I can say is, that if it is true, he has used a young lady of my acquaintance abominably ill, and I wish with all my soul his wife may plague his heart out. And so I shall always say, my dear, you may depend on it. I have no notion of men’s going on in this way: and if ever I meet him again, I will give him such a dressing as he has not had this many a day. But there is one comfort, my dear Miss Marianne; he is not the only young man in the world worth having; and with your pretty face you will never want admirers. Well, poor thing! I won’t disturb her any longer, for she had better have her cry out at once and have done with it. The Parrys and Sandersons luckily are coming to-night, you know, and that will amuse her.”

    She then went away, walking on tiptoe out of the room, as if she supposed her young friend’s affliction could be increased by noise.[/i]

  12. Cathy Allen permalink
    June 11, 2007 5:32 pm

    From P&P, maybe my favorite line in the book, pronounced by Lady Catherine regarding piano-playing:

    “If I had ever learnt, I should be a true proficient.”

    What a woman!

  13. Reeba permalink
    June 11, 2007 6:23 pm

    I love the John Thorpe proposal in Northanger Abbey;
    JT – “Did you ever hear the old song ‘Going to One Wedding Brings on Another?’[…] we may try the truth of this same old song.”
    Catherine – “But I never sing.”

    After the proposal, Mr. Knightley and Emma walk back into the house to be welcomed by Mr. Woodhouse, who is gtreatly concerned about his ride back from London in the rain;

    “Poor Mr. Woodhouse little suspected what was plotting against him in the breast of that man whom he was so cordially welcoming, and so anxiously hoping might not have taken cold from his ride.

    Could he have seen the heart, he would have cared very little for the lungs;”

    And another one from Emma about the married Mr. Elton;
    “and when she considered how peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry, she must allow him to have the right to look as little wise, and to be as much affectedly, and as little really easy as could be.”

  14. Kent permalink
    June 11, 2007 7:15 pm

    From Mr. Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice:

    “…I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.”

    “You are uniformly charming!” cried he. . .

  15. Helen A. permalink
    June 11, 2007 9:04 pm

    From Sense and Sensibility Mrs John Dashwood says:

    “Certainly not; but if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it.”

    And this from Jane’s letter to Cassandra, 12 May 1801:

    “Mrs Badcock & two young Women were of the same party, except when Mrs Badcock thought herself obliged to leave them, to run round the room after her drunken Husband. –His avoidance, & her pursuit, with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene. –”

  16. CurtB permalink
    June 11, 2007 9:32 pm

    And how about this? This one would be worthy of Dorothy Parker:

    “Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)–Do not you all think I shall?”

    Emma could not resist.

    “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me–but you will be limited as to number–only three at once.”

  17. Teresa permalink
    June 11, 2007 10:30 pm

    How about Jane at her snarkiest? Not in her novels but in a letter to Cassandra.

    “Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

  18. Lynn permalink
    June 11, 2007 10:41 pm

    Henry can always be relied on to be amusing, but this from S & S always cracks me up:
    Her [Mrs Ferrars] family had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again.

    In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existence secure, till he had revealed his present engagement; for the publication of that circumstance, he feared, might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before.

  19. June 12, 2007 12:48 am

    Fabulous defense of our fabulous Jane. Critics can only snipe. That’s because they often don’t have an original thought in their empty talentless heads.

  20. JaneGS permalink
    June 12, 2007 3:12 pm

    I couldn’t help googling Des McHale and found this entry:

    Not sure whether too math jokes and Irish jokes have rendered Austen unfunny to him, but I can only imagine that compiling “The World’s Best Maggie Thatcher Jokes” was not a healthy activity.

  21. June 14, 2007 1:19 pm

    I am sure that many can quote from the six major works, but as Fay Weldon has remarked, there are gems aplenty in the lesser known juvenilia:

    From “Jack and Alice” comes one of my very favorite but little known lines:

    Charles Adams was an amiable, accomplished, & bewitching young Man; of so dazzling a Beauty that none but Eagles could look him in the Face.

    From “Love and Freindship”:

    Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted only of your Mother.


    The noble Youth informed us that his name was Lindsay — for particular reasons, however, I shall conceal it under that of Talbot.

  22. Kim permalink
    June 16, 2007 8:51 am

    From Sense and Sensibility, of Mrs. Ferrars:
    “She was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.”

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