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Laughing with Lydia

Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen.
By Audrey Bilger.
Wayne State University Press, 1998, 261 pages. Hardcover. $40.00.
By Victoria Kortes-Papp.

 In Laughing Feminism, published by Wayne State University Press as part of their "Humor in Life and Letters" Series, Audrey Bilger analyzes the ways in which three major 18th Century women novelists, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, make use of comedy and comic tactics in their writings, concentrating specifically on how comic elements introduce and help develop feminist discourse.

 Using a combination of feminist and humour theorists, Bilger examines thematically the several places where comedy and feminism converge in the work of the three novelists. She first situates in context the theme of humour and laughter for 18th Century women. She also explores the ways in which in their own private writings to friends and family, Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen apply humour in forms and uses similar to those they employ in their fiction.

 The author goes on to illustrate how each of the three novelists uses comic strategies similar to those presented in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rightsof Woman. For Bilger, the novelists concur most specifically with Wollstonecraft on the occasions in which they use satire with an ideological purpose, aiming sharp ridicule at characters who maintain or advocate sexist beliefs. Readers of Austen will not be surprised that Bilger finds, among others, Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Collins and Northanger Abbey's John Thorpe propitious examples.

 The study goes on to address some of the questions that arise from the way Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen also mock and satirize women. Finally, Bilger turns her attention to what she refers to as 'violent comedy,' comedy that "treads a fine line between humor and horror." She proposes that the disturbing aspects of such comedy be understood as having been reaction to the violence innate to the reality of the lives of women in the 18th Century.

Laughing Feminism is at its most effective when discussing the ways in which comedy acts as a screen, allowing the feminist discourse to be brought into the novels, foremost through the inclusion of what Bilger describes as a 'trickster' character:
 

While satirical commentary and female naive satirists made it possible for these authors to criticize the status quo, such devices had a major limitation: the novelists ran the risk of being identified with their fiction and censured for expressing feminist views. With trickster characters, on the other hand, they were able to stage rebellions against the restrictions on womanhood without having to fear being identified with these characters. Because tricksters are not the heroines and are often condemned within the novel by male figures, much of the reading public would not associate their views with those of the author.


 Bilger uses four main examples to illustrate tricksters: Mrs. Selwyn in Evelina, Honoria Pemberton in Cecilia, Mrs. Freke in Belinda, and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. She convincingly argues that although these characters are frowned upon for their excesses and wild behaviour, their very transgressions at times serve the heroine. Bilger goes on to show that although trickster characters are censured in the narratives, they are not dismissed out of hand.

 Throughout, Bilger's work is informative and thorough. The intellectual and theoretical framework it gives its readers and the textual examples it presents offer a convincing argument for the acknowledgment of the feminist voice innate to the comic novels of Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen.


Victoria Kortes-Papp is a Ph.D. candidate at Quebec City's Universite' Laval, writing her dissertation on Frances Burney. She was also Co-convenor of the 1998 JASNA AGM held in Quebec City.
 

JASNA News v.16, no. 1, Spring 2000, p. 15

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