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       Neo-Victorian Humour

Comic Subversions and Unlaughter in Contemporary Historical Re-Visions


Edited by Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben


Neo-Victorian Series 5

Leiden & Boston: Brill / Rodopi, 2017

Hardcover. 350 p. ISBN 978-90-9004336605. €115


Reviewed by Nadine Böhm-Schnitker

Bergische Universität Wuppertal





With their Brill / Rodopi series, Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben have achieved a double feature: not only to contribute to the definition of neo-Victorian studies by setting an agenda of central topics, theories and concerns, but also to bring together international scholars from different disciplines who reveal the vibrancy of current re-visions and re-imaginings of the long nineteenth century. Neo-Victorian Humour is the fifth instalment of the series that, up to now, comprises Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma (2010), Neo-Victorian Families (2011), Neo-Victorian Gothic (2012), Neo-Victorian Cities (2015), and a special edition on Neo-Victorian Villains (2017).

The somewhat clumsy term in this edition’s subtitle, “Unlaughter”, draws attention to the fact that humour can be employed strategically “to provoke humorless responses and, in doing so, to heighten social boundaries”, as Moira Smith argues [5]. Similar to disgust (see Ahmed 2004 : 88), unlaughter is hence a culturally calibrated response to forms of representation that may impact on social networks and affiliations. As such it creates communities united or split by their different notions of what is funny. Neo-Victorian Humour highlights the multiple cultural functions of various kinds of humour and emphasises the critical and political potential of laughter that is paramount for central neo-Victorian tenets such as the self-reflexive and/or parodistic revision of the past. Humour, one may argue, is thus ingrained in the very roots of neo-Victorianism – emerging as it did in postmodernism, initially as a variation of historiographic metafiction or literary revision. Both modes of writing may employ irony, pastiche and parody. Hence, it is surprising that humour is only tackled in detail some twenty years after the term ‘neo-Victorianism’ has first been used (see Shiller 1997).

In their joint introduction, “What’s So Funny about the Nineteenth Century?”, Kohlke and Gutleben lay the foundations for the academic exploration of the relevance of humour in the contemporary revision of nineteenth-century culture and provide a meticulous framework for the articles comprised in this edited collection. While they argue that a lot of neo-Victorian humour can be conceptualised by the major forms of humour as either superiority or incongruity, they also include approaches pertaining to play and explore the ways in which humour influences the self-reflexivity entailed in the neo-Victorian access to the past: “Superior humour mocks the Victorians as incongruously ‘wanting’ subjects, but also repeatedly exposes incongruities in postmodern subject positions, value judgments, and ethics, so that any sense of superiority risks comic implosion” [17]. This is a central aspect that illustrates the relevance of this edition. It renders explicit the importance of humour in revealing the ethical and hermeneutic pitfalls of presentist approaches to the past that belittle it through a stance of superiority by hindsight. ‘Wanting’ wields a double meaning here that illustrates not only the alleged historical inferiority of Victorian subjects, but also points to the current interest in ‘desiring’ subjects. Consequently, topics of sex and gender are a central concern of many of the contributions.

In this well-structured collection of essays, Gutleben and Kohlke bring together established scholars of neo-Victorian studies who cover new ground in different genres and media. Part 1, entitled “Humour and Metanarratives”, focuses on humour’s role with regard to the reflection on narrative processes.

Miriam Elizabeth Burnstein aptly opens the essay collection with a focus on parody in “Parody after Providence: Christianity, Secularism, and the Form of Neo-Victorian Fiction” [47-70]. She explores the narratological conundrums in neo-Victorian novels and her selected examples “all probe what happens when the characters and/or the narrators confront the apparent death of providential thinking” [48]. Postmodernist secularism hence poses fundamental challenges to novelistic plotting and the means by which any sense of certainty can be constructed in neo-Victorian narrative.

Marie-Luise Kohlke’s “Neo-Victorian Killing Humour: Laughing at Death in the Opium Wars” [71-102] is certainly the centrepiece of this part. Kohlke analyses the ideological functions of “‘killing humour’” – a form of black humour “derived from the termination of Others’ lives through direct or indirect human agency” [72] – in novels and plays dealing with the Opium Wars. The aim is to show in what ways such forms of humour may help to induce readers to engage with fraught issues of history or identity and to reflect on what is at stake – historically, but, perhaps even more importantly, also in terms of their own identity politics. Moreover, the article sets out to ascertain “the points beyond which scenes of historical killing short-circuit comic effects and stop humour itself dead in its tracks” [74] as well as the ethics of this kind of humour. Kohlke’s concept seems to be a neo-Victorian variation of George Meredith’s notion of the comic spirit, despite the fact that Meredith would never have gone so far as to introduce ‘killing humour’. Meredith’s notion of the comic spirit is based on a strong self-reflexivity, or even a self-monitoring, induced by a lenient if highly perceptive form of humour that allows for and alleviates self-criticism. As such, it may even serve as an ideological backdrop for the notion of post-ethics that the editors describe as “self-reflexively troubling its own superior moral credentials” [97].

Meredith is then of central concern in Dana Shiller’s essay “‘Bleak Hilarity’ in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty” [103-124]. This case study reveals Hollinghurst’s reliance on Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton and shows how the writer employs humour to criticise Thatcherite materialism. James knew Meredith’s ideas on the comic spirit well and Hollinghurst’s retake thus cleverly incorporates Victorian theorising on humour via his reworking of James. This complex palimpsest of intertextuality situates this novel in the very pink of neo-Victorianism (see Heilmann/Llewellyn 2010 : 4) and cleverly reflects on the historical appropriation of humour.

The first part closes with Michael L. Ross’s case study “Drainage in a Time of Cholera: History and Humour in Matthew Kneale’s Sweet Thames” [125-146]. The article continues the critique of Thatcherite political and moral ideologies that foster some moral “myopia” [133]. The novel’s topic of sanitisation goes hand in glove with a moral sensitisation to the fate of the poor in a time of cholera, which can be read as a critical commentary on the rampant neo-liberalism of the 1980s – that, of course, is not without its neo-Victorian reverberations.

Part 2, entitled “Humour and Gender”, opens with Margaret D. Stetz’s article about the ways in which gender discourses calibrate what can be laughed at. She reveals how fashion is almost exclusively associated with femininity and sheds light on how the discursive strategies to downplay the art of fashion are closely intertwined with ways of devaluing women; fashion and femininity are ridiculed, exposed to laughter, and thus marked as unimportant in order to further marginalise women culturally and socially. Stetz thus elucidates the politics of laughter and takes issue with the social hierarchies constructed through the power of humour.

In “Neo-Victorian Feminist History and the Political Potential of Humour” [170-191], Tara MacDonald focuses on Jessica Swale’s play Blue Stockings and the BBC’s suffragette comedy Up the Women (2013) to illustrate how vital comedy is to promote feminist concerns in mainstream culture. She argues that humour serves metafictional purposes in the respective cultural products that, in turn, help to oppose political and social jeopardies of gender equality.

In their joint article “Good Vibrations : Hysteria, Female Orgasm, and Medical Humour in Neo-Victorianism” [192-212], Monika Pietrzak-Franger and Eckart Voigts claim that works such as Emi Gennis’s A History of Vibrators (2014), Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2010) or Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria (2011) “stage a satirical comedy of denigration and exclusion at the expense of a (supposedly) bygone patriarchal regime, represented by chauvinistic, obtuse, self-willed male doctors, as well as (occasionally) other figures of male Victorian wealth and authority (judges, lawyers, etc.)” [193]. They analyse the extent to which such works prove symptomatic of a neo-Victorian normalisation of post-feminist hedonism. Furthermore, they show how comedy may become complicit with forms of consumerism that sometimes go against the grain of a liberal feminism or threaten to substitute human closeness with mechanical stimulation.

An innovative and seriously funny contribution, Dru Pagliassotti’s “‘People keep giving me rings, but I think a small death ray might be more practical’ : Woman and Mad Science in Steampunk Comics” [213-248] deals with the figure of the female mad scientist in steampunk web comics. As the analysis shows, it is only in web comics that liberation from established gender stereotypes becomes culturally viable, which is interesting both in terms of gender studies and in terms of media studies. New media enable new femininities that weaken the ideological shackles of romance and allow for female appropriations of, for instance, “an obsessive pursuit of knowledge and invention” [240]. Part 2 is generally the most versatile in terms of different media and genres and is aptly placed at the centre of the edited collection.

“Humour and Postmodernism” is the title of part 3 of Neo-Victorian Humour. Megen de Bruin-Molé opens this final part with “‘Now with Ultraviolent Zombie-Mayhem!’ : The Neo-Victorian Novel-as-Mashup and the Limits of Postmodern Irony” [249-276]. With her focus on the limits of postmodern irony and her emphasis on both hermeneutic and ethical questions, the author already indicates that the mash-up may be a genre that exceeds the boundaries of the postmodern as a period. Theoretically, she associates the mash-up with Susan Sontag’s notion of camp because “its intentional awfulness […] may best explain its attractions” [251], which broaches the topic of high and low culture in neo-Victorianism. Apart from its ostentatious embeddedness in popular culture, the mash-up sports a more complicated kind of irony than a critical revision of the nineteenth century [see 255]. Consequently, the ethical and political impact of mash-up intertextuality is more difficult to ascertain as it becomes more playful.

In “Camp Heritage : Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm as Neo-Victorian Spectacle” [277-295], Christophe Van Eecke also employs the notion of camp and explores Russell’s film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s eponymous novel. Released in 1988, the adaptation negotiates aspects of Thatcherism and challenges both heritage culture and gender hierarchies through its campiness that not only determines the film’s mise-en-scène and style but also its histrionics and cast.

With an emphasis on the carnivalesque and grotesque in a Bakhtinian sense, Saverio Tomaiuolo takes up the currently very popular topic of neo-Victorian freakery in “Laughing (at) Freaks: ‘Bending the tune to her will’ in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Rosie Garland’s The Palace of Curiosities” [296-322], while Ryan D. Fong concludes the edition’s final part with a reflection on the past in “The Dog Days of Empire: Black Humour and the Bestial in J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur” [323-342]. He reveals black humour as “a neo-Victorian strategy that engages with and overturns the Mutiny novel’s fixation on the supposedly excessive violence of the rebelling sepoys and shows how the siege uncannily reflects the brutality intrinsic to British colonial rule” [325]. Humour is thus revealed to be a crucial tool of postcolonial analysis.

Neo-Victorian Humour sheds light on a hitherto widely overlooked aspect of neo-Victorianism. It presents humour as an apt concept to question the position from which we construct the past and lays bare our own desires, interests and biases involved in making his/herstories. That which is funny about the nineteenth century is everything but a laughing matter – neo-Victorian humour in all its facets is, much rather, a cultural coding of what matters. What can or cannot be laughed at and what can or cannot be laughed about says a lot about the ways in which cultural relevance is produced. Humour impacts on the construction of subject positions and social power hierarchies, articulates social inequalities by way of (satirical) exaggerations and impacts on narrative structures. The edited collection proves veritably enlightening with regard to the cultural functions of laughter and unlaughter. It is a treasure trove not only for scholars in the field but also for newcomers and researchers situated in adjacent fields such as cultural and media studies. Neo-Victorian Humour is highly readable and covers an impressive scope of topics, genres and approaches. It subscribes to a wide notion of neo-Victorianism and presents a welcome intervention in the debate on the cultural inclusivity of neo-Victorianism. Definitely, the reader may expect to be amused.



Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Heilmann, Ann & Llewellyn, Mark. Neo-Victorianism : The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Meredith, George. “Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit” (1877). The Egoist. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1979 : 431-450.

Shiller, Dana. “The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel”. Studies in the Novel 29/4 (1997) : 538-560.


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