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Pathological Laughter and the Response to Ridicule: Samuel Richardson, Jane Collier and Sarah Fielding

Rebecca Anne Barr
p. 223-244


Cet article se fonde sur un échantillon d’ouvrages du milieu du siècle, de Samuel Richardson, Sarah Fielding, et Jane Collier, pour examiner la façon dont ces œuvres prennent part au débat sur la moralité du rire. Loin de simplement rejeter la comédie et de substituer les soupirs de la sensibilité au naturel du bel esprit, ces auteurs s’intéressent tout particulièrement à la signification du rire, à sa moralisation et à sa législation. En tant qu’affect naturel et spontané, à la fois physiologique et cognitif, le rire prolonge, tout en la contestant, l’ambition de la sensibilité à incarner la moralité. Je souhaite montrer que même dans le roman sérieux, et peut-être surtout dans ce genre littéraire, l’épistémologie du rire acquiert une importance capitale. Loin de promouvoir exclusivement une sensibilité lacrymale, ces auteurs sentimentaux ambitionnaient parfois de “corriger les inepties [des lecteurs] par le rire” malgré un malaise fondamental au sujet du statut moral de ce dernier.

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1For such a sombre novel, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is full of peculiar laughter. Unlike the infuriatingly comedic Pamela, where the plot resolution converts rape into marriage, and sinister accomplices into comic characters, Clarissa’s resolutely grim conclusion would seem to preclude amusement. The sentimental novel is not renowned, after all, for deliberate drollness. Increasingly, moreover, the sober manifestations of sensibility are being redescribed as marginal in a culture dominated by cheerful and often uncouth good humour. While works such as Vic Gattrell’s City of Laughter (2006) and Simon Dickie’s Cruelty and Laughter (2011) have usefully recovered a more “unsentimental eighteenth century,” in which audiences continued to enjoy lewd prints and vicious raillery at the expense of the disabled, poor, or uncomely, academic revisionism has further consolidated the impression that the moralistic writers of the mid-century were frowning didacts at odds with society’s exuberant cruelty. As Dickie notes, the allure of brutal humour is almost overwhelmingly powerful throughout the long eighteenth century. Indeed, an unsettling fascination with the contemptuous gaiety of privilege infects Richardson’s damning portrait of the villainous Robert Lovelace. His “shocking levity” (1204) at the results of his rape remained unexpurgated by the censorious author despite numerous subsequent revisions (Dickie 153). Yet just as Clarissa interrupts the protracted martyring of its heroine with a comic portrait of the pedantic clergyman Elias Brand, other works by Richardson’s circle explore the meaning of laughter quite explicitly: engaging in remarkably sustained interrogations of its causes and effects, incorporating comic effects, and subverting expectations that the sentimental novel might fundamentally lack a sense of humour.

2This article will examine a sample of mid-century works by Samuel Richardson, Sarah Fielding, and Jane Collier, to uncover the ways in which their work participates in the ethical debate on the morality of laughter. Rather than simply rejecting comedy and substituting the sighs of sensibility for unselfconscious wit, these writers show an ongoing attention to the meaning of laughter, its renovation and regulation. As a seemingly natural and involuntary response, both physiological and cognitive, laughter parallels and complicates sensibility’s claims to embodied morality. Rather than extirpating laughter, these mid-century writers interrogate its social and moral significance, adding a new dimension to the eighteenth-century debate over laughter’s role in producing and policing polite and impolite behaviour. I suggest that even in non-humorous fiction, and perhaps especially in such serious fiction, the epistemology of laughter is of paramount importance. Rather than modelling a permanently lachrymal sensibility, these sentimental authors experimented with “laughing [readers] out of their absurdities” (The Cry, I. 37). Jane Collier, for instance, planned a work entitled The Laugh. Yet that work remained unwritten, partly perhaps as a consequence of laughter’s moral ambiguity. The laughter in the works I discuss is rarely innocent; it is often the province of libertines, the lower orders, the feeble-minded, or vicious. Laughter in these works displays a worrying tendency to wound, to punish, and to flourish where its presence is unwelcome. Laughter becomes an overt subject of dispute, analysis, and a source of self-conscious anxiety. By investigating the presence of the risible in works such as Clarissa (1747-48), Sir Charles Grandison (1754), The Cry (1754) and David Simple (1744) this essay explores the fraught relationship between dependency, power, and laughter. If laughter is indeed the “sudden glory” of perceived superiority, the humour found in these works is tentative and troubled – the smile of the subaltern, as it were. These mid-century authors investigate the social and psychological contexts for laughter, responding to aggressive forms of humour by shaping alternative modes of self-conscious and self-lacerating humour.

Hobbes, laughter, and subjugation

3Much mid-century anxiety about the moral status of laughter stems from Thomas Hobbes’s influential definition in Leviathan (1651), describing the motions of hilarity as spontaneous bodily “grimaces” of “Sudden Glory” caused either by self-gratifying actions or “the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves” (43). In Hobbes’s schema, laughter was the hallmark of malicious passion, an embodied response to the cognitive perception of personal superiority. As Quentin Skinner has argued, laughter “was a perfect illustration of [Hobbes’s] more general views about the nature of humankind” (Skinner 159): that is, fundamentally competitive and hostile even when polite and non-violent. For Hobbes, laughter’s opposite was “Sudden Dejection,” manifest by tears or weeping, conveying the loss of power or hope, and typically expressed by those who “rely principally on helps externall, such as Women, and Children” (43). Both passions are clearly gendered, mirth expressing autonomy, masculine ability and assurance of power over others, while grief and dejection the provenance of feminized dependents. Hobbes’s taxonomy placed laughter with derision, contempt and shame; a triangulation of power whose somatic surplus was conditional upon the humiliation of one of the parties.

4Hobbes’s characterization of laughter spawned a proliferation of criticism attempting to sever laughter’s connection to aggressive contumely. By heralding the therapeutic benefits of amusement, or outlining the innocuous nature of “true” mirth against aggressive raillery, and the power of “good natured” laughter to unite society, commentators attempted to extricate genial mirth from undifferentiated vitriol. Yet even the most positive assertions of the morality of mirth betray ambivalence about both its causes and its effects. This is in part due to transition from a classical analysis of the emotions to a more biological account of psychological individualism (Gross 71). Despite being an embodied response, laughter included a cognitive component: part active, part passive, mirthful paroxysms exemplified the complex relation between mind and body. Laughter could render its object powerless and abject, but could similarly license a Bakhtinian levelling of distinctions, transgressing protocol and propriety in “natural” outbursts against superiors. Addison’s Spectator no 47 explored the moral anxiety around laughter’s origin and social function. Despite moral and intellectual virtues, he complains, some “men of Wit and Sense […] have always the Misfortune to make the Company merry”, “exposed to the Wit and Raillery of their Well-wishers and Companions […] pelted by Men, Women, and Children, Friends and Foes” (Spectator I.204). Keen to refute the universality of Hobbesian malice, Addison converts figures of fun into lynchpins of clubbability: without such “provokers of mirth,” he argues, “it is impossible for a club or merry-meeting to subsist.” Shakespeare’s Falstaff exemplifies a moral risibility derived from shared human fallibility rather than scornful subjugation, fellow feeling rather than aggressive individualism. For Addison such public amusement distributes power more equitably than the secret, selfish elation of Hobbesian laughter, since the butt of humour “frequently gets the Laugh of his side, and turns the Ridicule upon him that attacks him” (Spectator I.204).

5Yet this capacity for ridicule to “turn” confirms laughter as an unstable exchange liable to deteriorate into uncivil abuse or the increasingly derogatory “ridicule.” Even Addison’s defence of inclusive laughter leans towards the Hobbesian construction of human nature and social interaction as based on an “economy of emotional scarcity […] where the emotional wealth of one necessarily comes at the expense of another” (Gross 42). Attempts to assert inclusive mirth are beset by the evidence to the contrary: that laughter can cause bitter faction, and that its shifting allegiance matches the fluctuating inequities of social relations and an irremediable discord between individuals. As indices of the relative power of subjects, laughter and tears signal relative social scope, attesting to the uneven distribution of prestige and the difficulty of establishing genuine inclusivity, concord and amiability. In his novels, Samuel Richardson uses the violence of extravagant laughter to legitimate and promote the civilizing effects of feminine sympathy. For the middling rank Tory printer, Hobbesian laughter represented the constitutional evils of unbridled appetite and the urgent moral necessity of re-evaluating passions previously associated with weakness and dependency.

Pathological laughter in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa

6Richardson’s work is notorious for its affecting scenes of pathos and melancholy, in which mental turmoil is expressed through the anguished bodies of his (mainly female) characters. These “eloquent objects” (Goring 5) – fainting maidens, weeping and hysterical men whose letters often collapsed into broken utterances – gestured to the inadequacy of language to express the passions. Richardson’s affecting representations were designed to stimulate, and simulate, increasingly refined responses in readers, modelling responses that encouraged pity and sympathy for their objects. In contrast to the Hobbesian subject who chuckles at the perceived deformity of another, the sentimental novel posits a naturally benevolent subject constitutionally inclined toward sympathy, or “fellow-feeling,” toward the infirm or vulnerable. Eighteenth-century sympathy revolves around acts of substitution rather than comparison, painful self-mortification rather than delightful gratulation. In Adam Smith’s account individuals imaginatively identify with the body of another, becoming “in some measure the same person with him […] His agonies […] when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels” (Smith 9). The sympathetic individual not merely projects himself into the sufferer but also creates an ideal “impartial spectator, an ideal man within the breast” (172) who is imagined witnessing his responses. As David Marshall observes, this process is “inherently theatrical” (Marshall 2, 168), as private, mental and affective responses are performed on the body for the benefit of social approval.

7Smith, and eighteenth-century moral philosophy more generally, is more interested in the strong affect of pity. Pathetic displays produce in moral subjects “so instantaneous an effect, that you would think the will was scarce concerned, and that the mind was altogether passive in the sympathy” (Sterne 27). Sympathy’s ability to override ratiocination and to produce spontaneous effects on the subject is amplified in sentimental fiction, where narrative’s capacity to possess readers “by a kind of violence […] almost without the intervention of the will” (Johnson 22) augments the radical passivity of the reading subject. That passivity is as physical as it is cognitive. As “the site where the communicative power of feeling is displayed,” the body is also the location where otherwise laudable passions may “become excessive or uncontrollable” (Mullan, 16): where moral sensibility may degenerate into neurasthenic melancholy and where moderate laughter may splutter into hysteria.

8The modelling of laughter and tears in literature therefore has immense moral consequence, since somatic responses both test the reader’s emotional and moral propensities, and develop habits of response. Whilst Richardson’s endorsement of sorrow and pity is a critical commonplace, his representation of laughter is generally ignored. From the pedantic Elias Brand, whose smirking misprision is a counterfoil to Clarissa Harlowe’s holy dying, to the demented punning of Robert Lovelace, Richardson’s novels bristle with characters whose laughter is inherently unsympathetic. The patrician Henry Fielding had publicly derided the moral aspirations of Richardson’s Pamela (1740) as mercenary dissimulation and Richardson’s resultant antipathy toward Fielding crystallises a mistrust of the laughter of rank privilege. If Joseph Andrews defended laughter as therapeutic release, Richardson’s sensitivities focused on those whose deformity, infirmity, or class vulnerability made them susceptible to derision. Richardson shows the other side of the smile: the ugliness of laughter derived at the expense of embattled female virtue.

9The virtuous Clarissa Harlowe is shown as a victim of virulent derision: her malevolent maidservant Betty Barnes, for instance, stuffs her mouth with her apron as she unsuccessfully suppresses snickering at Clarissa’s abrupt fall from familial favour. Likewise Arabella Harlowe’s “spiteful laugh” (Clarissa 197) and derisive smirk (201) is provoked by her pleasure at Clarissa’s imminent marriage to the repulsive Solmes – a vainglorious scorn galvanized by her younger, more attractive sister’s reversal of fortune. Such contemptuous sneers are a form of Clarissa’s female grotesque; as “masculine” mockery disfigures moral feminine sympathies, contorting faces into uncharitable and ultimately macabre sneers. In Richardson’s novels physical manifestations of humour are governed by gender propriety, as the smile becomes a litmus test of morality and the laugh an index of moral laxity. Both Lovelace and Clarissa concur on the significance of the smile, used by libertines to gauge women’s susceptibility to corruption. Smiling at lewd innuendo becomes an invitation to seduction, since “if she has borne that, or only blushed, and not been angry, and more especially if she has leered and smiled, that girl have I, and old Mulciber, put down for our own” (521). Indeed, in plot terms, women’s collusion in masculine humour is particularly fatal. During Clarissa’s final desperate attempt to escape violation, Lovelace persuades the women harbouring her at the Lower Flask that her horror at his appearance is mere virgin delicacy at the imminent consummation of their “marriage.” The modest evasions of the women are compromised by the smiles of the Widow Bevis whose “eyes laughed outright […] challenging a laugh from every eye in the company” (805). Here bawdy humour overrides moral intuition: Lovelace’s use of the restoration type of the lecherous Widow confirming the moral unreliability of comic tropes and their devastating resistance to the claims of individual subjectivity. At Mrs. Sinclair’s house licentious conversation elicits only “smiles and simperings” (542-43) from the retinue of fallen women, their leers encouraging culpability and foreshadowing complicity in Lovelace’s crime. Clarissa’s reproof – calmly reiterating Cowley’s maxim that wit is “not a jest” (712), and that genuine amusement requires the support of moral values – silences the assembly with “conscious superiority” (ibid.). While this epiphanic moment convinces Belford of the degraded quality of libertine wit, Clarissa’s refutation does not so much turn the laugh against the libertines as neutralize the conditions for unthinking laughter: she forces self-conscious reflection, breaks the exchange of lewd humour. Clarissa’s intervention discredits “frothy jest, laughing impertinence, and an obscenity so shameful even to the guilty, that they cannot hint at it but under a double meaning!” (712-13). As sentimental killjoy, then, Clarissa’s humorlessness is punished by the most grim “joke” of all; the loss of her virtue. As Dickie notes, Richardson’s sympathetic representation of emotional devastation of the consequence of rape was extraordinarily “counterintuitive” (223). Lovelace’s dismissal of the rape as a mere “jest […] a mere jest to die for!” (1308) reminds us of the winking innuendo, and courtroom mockery that Clarissa’s monumental volumes reject in favour of “private and serious audience” (1253).

10It is surprising, then, that Clarissa is equally damning about characters who show themselves incapable of laughter. The repellent Solmes confirms his unsuitability as a suitor by his awkward inability to participate in sociable good humour. “His laugh,” Anna Howe remarks acidly, is a mechanical oddity:

his first three years […] must have been one continual fit of crying; and his muscles have never yet been able to recover a risible tone. His very smile (you never saw him smile, I believe; never at least gave him cause to smile) is so little natural to his features, that it appears in him as hideous as the grin of a man in malice.
[…] I was glad, I remember, on that particular occasion, to see his strange features recovering their natural gloominess, though they did this but slowly, as if the muscles which contributed to his distortions had turned upon rusty springs. (129-30)

Solmes’s unpractised physiognomy is unsuited to the amiable pleasantries of conversation, his laugh as rude and unpolished as Lovelace’s discourse is smooth and insinuating. His features contort under the unfamiliar passion which sociable interaction should render easy and elegant. Naturally covetous, he cannot join with the generous communality of polite laughter. Solmes’s automatism is not the generous spontaneity of sensibility, which fuses intellectual and physical responses. The rusty inelasticity of his features suggests a “diabolical parsimony” of sentiment contrasting with Clarissa’s “open, free, communicative temper” (153). Terrifyingly ridiculous as a prospective husband, Solmes’s character would be hilarious if his proposal were not so serious. In recoil from the gloomily acquisitive suitor, the contrasting expansive levity and demented comic energy of his opposite, rakish Robert Lovelace, takes on a superfluous charm.

11“The most agreeable of all bad characters,” the rake’s faults “proceed from strong passions and appetites” (Spectator no 27), but Richardson’s mixture of sexual entitlement, linguistic inventiveness and seductive theatrical prowess make Lovelace a compelling manifestation of this type. As Carol Kay and others have noted, Lovelace is a “cultural anachronism” (Mackie 62): a swaggering restoration rake whose savage self-aggrandisement represents the deliquescence of aristocratic privilege into absolutist individualism. He is cynical, self-regarding, and triumphalist. Most importantly for this discussion, Richardson characterizes Lovelace’s autocratic disdain for social conventions in his psychotic epistolary humour. In this polyvocal novel, only Lovelace and his lackeys employ the stylistic shorthand “hah hah hah!” to render their convulsive pleasure at the expense of others. Lovelace’s sense of fun is notorious: “although passionate, he was good humoured; loved as well to take a jest as to give one, and would rally himself, upon occasion, the freest of any man he ever knew” (51). Such liberality makes him seem an attractive foil to Solmes, but Lovelace’s capacity for gentlemanly humour quickly becomes an index of his lack of moderation, and his laugh a symptom of emotional instability. This is clear in Lovelace’s gleeful scorn following his successful stage-managing of Clarissa’s “escape” from her family:

Is there not such a game?—Nay, flying from friends she was resolved not to abandon to the man she was determined not to go off with?—The sex! the sex, all over!—charming contradiction!—Hah, hah, hah, hah!—I must here lay down my pen to hold my sides; for I must have my laugh out, now the fit is upon me!
I believe—I believe—Hah, hah, hah!—I believe, Jack, my dogs conclude me mad: for here has one of them popped in, as if to see what ailed me; or whom I had with me. The whoreson caught the laugh as he went out—Hah, hah, hah!—an impudent dog!—Oh Jack, knewest thou my conceit, and were but thy laugh joined to mine, I believe it would hold me for an hour longer. (400-01)

12Lovelace enjoys the “charming contradiction” in Clarissa’s escape, an instance of surprising incongruity which provokes a fit of inordinate laughter. Forcing him to lay down the pen, this epistolary paroxysm is a sign of dangerously excessive passions as his textual and bodily convulsions testify to an indulgence of involuntary ecstasy and hint at a lack of self-control. Lovelace luxuriates in the reflexive gratification of his own sense of “imperial will and pleasure” (403), his laugh reflecting his sense of the infinite malleability of both circumstances and individuals to his desires. Lovelace’s enjoyment is worryingly contagious – likeable, energetic, winning. Its whimsy is contagious, rendering his audience roguish “dogs” – servile wags sharing their master’s practical humour.

13Yet any sense of good-natured fellowship is swiftly undercut by the exposition of Lovelace’s Hobbesian pathology. The hedonistic involuntariness of Lovelace’s laughter initially obscures the sinister origins of his derision. His self-congratulatory mirth tempts readers to collude with his libertine designs, raising the moral unreliability of laughter and asking readers to modify, possibly even refuse, the impulse to laugh. Once purged of his excessive humour a compensatory sense of omnipotence arises in its place, as Lovelace delights in his imagined ability, as Hobbes would have it. The success of his scheme causes his self-conception to “swell” priapically, “I am taller by half a yard, in my imagination, than I was! --- I look down upon everybody now! [...] In short, my whole soul is joy. When I go to bed, I laugh myself asleep: and I awake either laughing or singing” (402). The imaginative charm of such jeux d’esprits is complicated by the sense of unbridled jocositas, or pleasure at ugliness, that occasions them. Lovelace’s laugh therefore functions as a marker of dilatory self-regard, emotional volatility, and moral unfixedness, but also as a caveat against the seductiveness of humour. Despite its whimsical virtuosity, then, Lovelace’s amusement at Clarissa’s predicament is based on antagonistic “warfare” (401) rather than gentle exchanges of amorous affection. His hah hah hah is revealed as a sneer of domination as he imagines his haughty “charmer” brought low, imperiously declaring that she is “IN [HIS] POWER” (401).”

14Such immoderate levity is a symptom of a pathological psychophysiology; a “constitutional gaiety” (1309) which degenerates into febrile anguish and raving incoherence after Clarissa’s death. Lovelace’s frenzy is only moderated by a “profuse phlebotomy” and “starving diet” (1431) to temper his passions. Ravaged by “thoughts of hanging, drowning, shooting; then rage, violence, mischief, and despair,” Lovelace’s loss of reason threatens to render him “the sport of enemies! the laughter of fools! and the hanging-sleeved, go-carted property of hired slaves” (1430). For Lovelace, nothing is more mortifying than becoming the supine object of laughter for the lower orders. As the “jest” turns on its author, the exorbitant energy of libertine jocositas is revealed as intrinsically unstable. As Lovelace’s plots unravel catastrophically, his mirth both attempts to stave off despair whilst testifying to his desolation. To “laugh and be merry in the midst of the most soul-harrowing woes, when the heart-strings are just bursting asunder,” he laments, “was reserved for thy Lovelace” (1310). As eighteenth-century sensibility emphasized the individual’s “capacity for extremely refined emotion and […] quickness to display compassion for suffering” (Whitaker 3), tears were the paradigmatic signal of moral sensitivity. In choosing to laugh rather than to cry, then, Lovelace confirms his self-important isolation and moral apostasy: an unfit subject for sympathy in the age of sensibility.

15So although Dickie asserts that Richardson’s fascination with “libertine-pranksters” (154) compromises his didacticism, Lovelace’s fate suggests that assertive derision is spectacularly punished. Similarly, in Sir Charles Grandison, the villainous Sir Hargrave Pollexfen’s laugh is described as one which “rather shewed ridicule than mirth. A provoking laugh […] a disputatious humour, in order to dash an opponent out of countenance, by getting the laugh, instead of the argument, on his side” (Grandison 61, my emphasis). Pollexfen’s socially coercive laugh is consonant with his violent sexual passions, and his disruptive behaviour is curtailed in a series of symbolic emasculations: disfigured facially after an accident with the hero’s sword, he is beaten brutally for his role in a seduction and ends the novel a broken man. Like Lovelace, then, Pollexfen’s theatrical criminality is characteristic of an archaic model of aggressively homosocial wit that Richardson seeks to “fair-sex” through the transformative passivity of its feminine heroines. Belford’s conversion suggests that the conditions for “true wit” are created in “the company of virtuous women; where the mutual endeavor to please must insensibly polish the mind, where the example of female softness and modesty must communicate itself to their admirers” (Hume 75, my emphases). Feminine company curtails excess of wit, creating a kind of gendered homeostasis. Thus Richardson promoted the “agreeable raillery” (73) of Clarissa’s foil, Anna Howe, as an alternative to the domineering mockery of libertine jest. Her corrective banter is as painful as ridicule, which subordinates individuals in order to gain personal advantage, but is guided by sympathy: it smiles instead of laughing.

That charming spirit […] which smiles yet goes to the quick of one's fault. […] Yours is intended to instruct; and though it bites, it pleases at the same time: no fear of a wound's rankling or festering by so delicate a point as you carry; not envenomed by personality, not intending to expose, or ridicule, or exasperate [… it is] founded in good nature, and directed by a right heart […] When every gash (for their weapon is a broadsword, not a lancet) lets in the air of public ridicule, and exasperates where it should heal. Spare me not therefore, because I am your friend. (280).

16While curative feminine raillery is agonizing, its discomfort is mutual and results in inter-personal communion. “After the first sensibility […] I will love you the better,” confirms Clarissa.

17The freedoms of “feminine” wit are explored in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison where the “good-natured raillery” (Grandison 1.252) of Charlotte Grandison creates an alternative mode to licentious amusement, even as it flirts with gender (rather than moral) impropriety. If Charlotte assumes an aristocratic independence in her drolleries, the epistolary community controls these. The heroine Harriet Byron sets the standard for the frank reciprocity of sensibility’s humour and for the need for masculine banter to be softened by the exchange of sentiments: “men, in their raillery, [Don't, however, read this paragraph to him] are so—I don't know how—so un-tender—But let me fall into the hands of my indulgent grandmamma, and aunt Selby, and into your gentle hands, and all will be as it should be” (2.275). Despite the parenthetical caveat, Harriet’s letters are circulated to correspondents of both sexes; her disingenuous emotional transparency anticipating and moderating the caustic humour that could be derived at her expense. Richardson “fair sexes” the economy of the passions, manipulating emotional transactions so that risibility is overwhelmed by generous pity: the tender pains of mockery merging seamlessly into the inter-subjectivity of sensibility.

“To reason was difficult, to grin was easy”: Shaftesbury, ridicule and female satire

18Richardson’s quarantining of ridicule is characteristic of an increasing mistrust of its corrosive scurrility. In the arsenal of seventeenth-century satire ridicule’s reformative force had been acknowledged as more powerful than “all the Artillery of grave Arguments, or Maxims of Morality” (Cleland 234). In the political stability of mid-century Britain, however, authors had become more chary of ridicule following its celebration in the heterodox writings of Shaftesbury, whose Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708) had defended its use as a genteel means of dampening religious extremism, for “good humour [was] the best security against enthusiasm [… and] the best foundation of piety and true religion” (13). Sensus Communis (1710) developed this polite latitude further, arguing that humour was not merely a “lenitive remedy against vice […] superstition and melancholy delusion” (59) but that ridicule in particular provided a socially acceptable means of testing opinions and beliefs. For conservative commentators Shaftesbury’s willingness to subject religion to polite protocol was tantamount to a repudiation of the “educated gentleman’s dependence upon the revealed will of God” (Grean in Barker-Benfield 108) and bolstered the conviction that both “wit and ridicule [were] fundamentally unfair, inherently impious, and uniquely dangerous” (Lund 1, 171). The so-called “test of truth” was restyled “the whetstone of infidelity” (Clarissa 443): a pernicious libertine tenet that sharpened skepticism and attacked the social order and the established Church. Once a weapon used to moral effect, Shaftesbury had repurposed ridicule to “to laugh Men out of Virtue and good Sense […] attacking every thing that is Solemn and Serious, Decent and Praiseworthy in Human Life” (Spectator no 249, II. 467). Glamorously superficial and compelling, ridicule substituted passionate derision for reasoned argument and granted its user a vainglorious superiority.

19Yet Shaftesbury’s work rejected Hobbesian malice, defending the benevolence of laughter – albeit as an implicit privilege of polite men within the homosocial preserves of the club. Thus Sensus Communis presumes equality between its witty gentlemen, who naturally know the difference between “seeking how to raise a laugh from every thing: and seeking, in every thing, what justly may be laughed at” (59). Discriminating mirth is an aristocratic right rather than a common property, the limitation of its parameters underscored by gender. The correct “use of this weapon” (59) is therefore vouchsafed by the good grace, liberal sociability and cultural security of the polite gentleman. Sociability itself is constituted by the reciprocal responsibilities of civil laughter: “I have taken the liberty, you see, to laugh, upon some occasions and, if I have […] laughed wrong […] I can be content to be laughed at, in my turn. If contrariwise I am railed at, I can laugh still” (68).

20The ease of Shaftesbury’s idealized mirth failed to convince all his readers. The emphasis on the freedom of wit alarmed orthodox critics, with Mary Astell noting that it was “of the very Essence of Wit to be out of Rule, and above all Measure […] So Free that not any thing is sacred enough to be Privileg’d” (19). Wit, like laughter, was liable to uncontrollable excess, and so critics of Shaftesbury sought to “articulate a decorum” to govern its usage, which would also function “primarily as an instrument of social control” (11). While Richardson’s response constrains “wit” via gender, relegating humour and positing sympathy as an alternative form of social power, Jane Collier and Sarah Fielding, by contrast, use satire to give voice to those oppressed by laughter and ridicule.

21Eschewing pathos, Collier and Fielding’s work is unremittingly unsentimental about human nature, sardonically (and occasionally heart-wrenchingly) satirising the abuses of wit. Though “overwhelmingly a male enterprise” (Marshall 28) in the eighteenth century, a minority of female writers – many of them associated with the Richardson circle – used satire to expose abuses of power in domestic, familial, or psychological contexts. Like Richardson, Collier and Fielding’s work attacks unthinking laughter’s ability to disrupt civil social and domestic spaces, its capacity for misdirection and particular application toward women of good sense and breeding. But, unlike Richardson, they appropriate ridicule to stake out a position of intellectual rigour and moral superiority. Indeed, Collier and Fielding directly challenge Shaftesbury’s theorization of wit and ridicule, formulating their own idiosyncratic ethics of laughter. If “To reason was difficult, to grin was easy,” (Vicesimus Knox, in Lund 133), Fielding and Collier encourage a more self-conscious, rational reader who recognizes that laughter requires regulation and who is willing to embrace the difficult task of thinking through their humour. Their use of digressive and essayistic form checks spontaneous mirth by instituting a system of cognitive breaks which force the reader to adjudicate and moderate their responses to humour. Collier and Fielding’s critical humour aims to unmask the unpleasant, sometimes ignorant, origins of social laughter and to promote orthodox reason and sociability in their stead.

22Jane Collier’s Art of Ingeniously Tormenting is an unsentimental primer of the ugly origins of amusement. Instructing its readers “how to make others miserable through manipulative strategies of psychological torture” (Bilger 18), this anti-conduct book’s real objects of scorn are those who debase themselves by indulging in petty power play. Exposing the sadistic subcurrents of domestic relations, the narrator counsels middle-class women on effectively demeaning husbands, servants, friends, and dependents for the pleasures of superiority. As in Richardson’s representations of pathological laughter, Collier shows how the apparently innocuous social dynamics of laughter reflect a zero-sum game of power-relations. Discredit a friend’s bon mot in company and “the laugh of approbation” becomes “a laugh of contempt”, mortifying one’s opponent whilst garnering applause. The theatrical nature of merriment keeps the victim at the mercy of the crowd, “for you may revive the laugh against him at any time” (85).

23Yet the paratextual fable appended to Collier’s satire makes clear that her analysis and her sympathies lies with the tormented. This Aesopian tale reframes the droll ridicule of the foregoing description of psychological torment by reminding us of the other side of laughter. The fable illustrates “the misery that is endured, from the entrance of teeth and claws into living flesh.” Victims best understand anguish, since “it is from suffering, and not from inflicting torments, that the true idea of them is gained” (100). Like Cynthia, in Sarah Fielding’s David Simple, Collier’s bleak satire testifies from experience that the “Love of Tyranny” (David Simple 115) is humanity’s ruling passion. Collier’s Ingeniously Tormenting mocks the vainglory of oppressors, making explicit the role of gender in forming and deforming the objects of laughter.

24As Audrey Bilger and Jill Heydt-Stevenson have shown, female humour in the eighteenth century was often seen as a transgression of feminine modesty and usurpation of male authority. In satirizing those who wantonly abuse dependents, Collier might appear to have successfully appropriated ridicule in service of the oppressed and marginalized. Yet her concluding fable, like Sarah Fielding’s Volume the Last (1753), shows genuine pessimism about laughter as a means of moral reform. Dark humour is merely a respite from the unpleasant business of living. As Fielding noted in her explanation of the term “Toadeater,” the language of satire itself is prone to corruption:

People who are so unhappy as to be in a State of Dependence, are forced to do the most nauseous things […] to please and humour their Patrons. […] The Satire of the Expression, in reality, falls on the Person who is mean enough to act in such a manner; but as it is no uncommon thing for People to make use of Terms they don’t understand, it is generally used, by way of Derision, to the unfortunate Wretch who is thrown into such a miserable Situation. (David Simple 89)

25Such linguistic transferences suggest that social context reroutes derision along pre-existing lines of power, consolidating the very subjugation that satire is supposed to break. That ignorant scoffers are the “real” objects of satire is cold comfort. Working in a genre increasingly dissociated from female writers, Collier and Fielding’s satires are particularly preoccupied with the plight of the learned woman. Their rational, intellectual protagonists are therefore also culturally anomalous within the eighteenth century’s female embodiment of virtue. Generically idiosyncratic and atypical in their elevation of reason over sentiment, Collier and Fielding are not only skeptical about satire’s reformative capacity but also mistrust sensibility’s potential to enslave men and women to their passions. Unsurprisingly, then, laughter in their collaborative work The Cry repeatedly signals mutual incomprehension and the limits of sensibility.

26The self-consciously hybrid form of The Cry signals its primarily intellectual, rather than sentimental, exploration of laughter. Unlike novels or romances driven by action, the fable focusses on the psychological processes of its protagonists, triangulating responses to encourage self-conscious interpretations rather than purely emotional reactions. The Cry aims to “paint the inward mind” in order to “awaken the [reader’s] judgment to exert itself, so as to reject all the alluring bribes which the passions […] can offer” (1.5, 1.8), making it more “a novel of consciousness” (92) than a conventional fiction. Combining the critical essay, inset narratives, and a mosaic of literary quotations and literary analysis, this “new dramatic fable” places two female protagonists, Portia and Cylinda, on an imaginary allegorical stage in order to present the psychological motives behind their actions. The anchor character Portia describes her love for the amiable Ferdinand, how the disruptive jealousy of friends and family, as well as Ferdinand’s own foolish moral fastidiousness, subjected her to a long and painful separation from her beloved. Her story scrutinizes common romantic notions and misconceptions while insisting on the centrality of rational esteem for genuine love. Cylinda, the secondary character, is a freethinking aristocratic woman raised on a diet of moral philosophy and much Shaftesbury. Her pursuit of intellectual truth and sexual freedom has led to heartbreak. These female characters deliver their personal histories to an audience comprised of Una, the allegorical figure of Truth, and an anti-chorus of ignorant individuals designated as “the Cry,” as well as the reader herself.

27While Una symbolizes thoughtful moral response and is largely silent aside from a few smiles, the noisy Cry jeer, jostle and laugh throughout the text. They wilfully misconstrue Portia’s tale of romantic anguish, cackling at her distresses, her dispassionate self-reflection and her coolly rational analyses of human behaviour. In allegorical terms, The Cry stages a confrontation between true and false wit, as the Cry assail Portia with offensive hilarity. Portia’s attempts to explain herself are met with “continual laughter, or rather sneering” (2.169), even when Una approves her sentiments. This desire “to open [her] whole heart without painful reserve […] and not have [her] words misinterpreted and tortured” (1.200-01) is baulked by the Cry’s desire for “witty” ridicule above truth. When Portia describes her chaste courtship with her beloved Ferdinand, the Cry assume a knowing expression, rejecting “innocence and chastity” as ludicrous concepts, scorning Portia’s account with “a horse laugh” (1.67) and peals of derisive mirth that show their teeth (1.209). Affected “humour and ridicule” (1.209) pass for worldly knowledge, as the Cry reject Portia’s terms as euphemisms that merely mask sexual rejection with morals. It is only “ugly women [… who] meet with nothing but chaste and innocent men” (1.67), they claim. Their rancorous wit inhibits the cultivation of social sympathies, preventing genuine communication and going against the truth of Portia’s experience.

28The Cry’s scornful laughter recalls the heartlessness and verbal power play of characters such as Lady Betty Modish (1.203) from Colley Cibber’s The Careless Husband (1705) and Millament from Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700). Like Lady Betty, the Cry espouses a Hobbesian understanding of human nature in which “power in all Creatures is the height of happiness” (II. I, 31-32). Their theatrical laughter expresses modish wit, dismissing the emotional sincerity of Portia as a failure in sophisticated manners. Yet by breaking polite decorum by exposing their teeth and wantonly laughing in face of their rival, the facial and linguistic contortions of the Cry reveal both physical and moral ugliness – encouraging contempt for their specious logic and debased opinions. As in Cibber’s “reform comedy” (McGirr 385), Collier and Fielding’s work appeals to reason rather than the passions, giving a caustic portrayal of “faulty behaviour and demand[ing] that their audiences laugh it out of fashion” (McGirr 386). Like “the ridiculers of parson Adams” it is the Cry who “are designed to be the proper objects of ridicule” (2.169, my emphasis), since Portia is (of course) beautiful, virtuous, and intelligent. Her ultimate marriage to the genuinely chaste Ferdinand provides a narrative riposte to cynical wit, confirming mutual love and companionate against antagonistic sexual politics.

29In many ways, Fielding and Collier’s work confirms the marginality of sensibility in a culture which prefers “taunting jest” (2.203) to tender sympathy. They describe polite exchange as a veneer which can scarcely conceal the hostile rage of individual competition: pricked by “the sharp stings of spite and malice” conversations descend into “rancor, malignity, impiety or profligacy” (1.202). Such bitter banter travesties the gentle commerce of affectionate relations, for “what can be more tragical than for a set of human creatures to assemble together, under the pretense of friendship and good-fellowship, in order only to take every opportunity of slyly hurting, and bringing one another to shame?” (1.202). These conditions also marginalise the valid moral critique offered by The Cry itself. If audiences desire “nothing but the grotesque” and “such jests as shall distort our faces into a broad grin,” works that “search the inmost recesses of the human heart” but fail to produce continual hilarity will inevitably have “a general outcry set up against them, that they are spiritless and dull” (2.170). In elevating raillery to the central business of sociability, the “art of pleasing in company” has become a hostile war of the wits, excluding the participation of those who could contribute to its reformation.

30Rather than substituting humour with pathos, The Cry turns the laugh against the philosopher responsible for promoting it. Using Shaftesbury’s example of Socrates’ security from scorn as a sign of the fail-proof utility of ridicule, Fielding points to the Greek philosopher’s destruction at the hands of mob rule:

Socrates, by […] buffoon tricks, was become a laughing-stock, the weapons of ridicule were to be changed into firebrands [...] First, by the power of burlesque they laugh'd at him […] accusations, which were first swallowed in the form of jesting on the theatre, now became serious in the forum; and thus, by the force of ridicule, of funn, of burlesque, (meant undoubtedly only to make folks merry) was laid the true foundation for the fall of the wisest and best man that ever yet appear'd in the heathen world. (2.60)

If laughter was responsible for the downfall of Socrates its use requires stringent control. Turning her bluestocking derision on Shaftesbury’s ideology, his “contradictions and false reasoning” are revealed as “the true objects of ridicule” (2.60). Condemning him “by his own criterion of truth” Shaftesbury becomes “a new subject for […] laughter” (ibid.), the “wisest and best heathen” of eighteenth-century England derided by female wit.

31The Cry thus extends the Tory critique of Shaftesbury in Mary Astell’s Bart’lemy Fair (1709). Both works attack his rhetoric as “irrational” and “passion-based” (Alvarez 478), its logic specious and its effects dangerous, licensing unruly passions by flattering the reader’s vanity. Likewise The Cry suggests that while men of good breeding, education and gentility may deploy ridicule well, its general effects are pernicious, especially for intellectual women, whose analytic abilities or mere unconventionality are perceived as a threat. Women who, like Cylinda, assume Shaftesbury’s “masculine freedom of character” (Bree 104) by pursuing an illusory independence are ultimately rejected by society for infringing sexual mores. The intrinsically relational nature of society, and women’s particularly dependent nature, means “no creature in a social community can injure himself alone” (2.269). Uncivil derision poses a threat to the social fabric itself: laughter must be reinvented to ensure a comic sociality which preserves tender feelings.

32Yet the conclusion of The Cry suggests that a resolution between laughter and feeling is profoundly problematic. Portia, Cylinda, and Una are separated from the Cry by a curtain falling, as they leave the stage to create a self-sufficient sympathetic community. At the disappearance of their enemies the vitriolic sniggers of the Cry give way to grievous clamour. “Without a common enemy on whom to vent their Spleen” (2.278) the mocking unity of the Cry becomes raging schism and dissension: their derisive laughter turns to abusive discord. Deprived of an object upon which to vent their splenetic mirth, the Cry becomes “like a mad Man, who […] find[ing] nothing else to cut and slash, turns his Sword upon himself” (David Simple 77). Portia’s sentimental phalanx retreats to an asylum where their tender smiles and moral harmony defy satirical representation. The end of satire is, paradoxically, the silencing of laughter.

33In Collier and Fielding’s caustic work the unbridled passions that drive laughter risk harming those very members of society who least deserve and can least afford its mockery. The Cry’s amoral guffaws discourage unreflective amusement in the reader; managing the “alluring bribes” of passionate mirth by forcing the reader to pause before they mock Portia’s idealism or Cylinda’s philosophical quixotism, lest their laugh echo the ugliness of the Cry. Throughout the text, Portia’s humiliation by vulgar laughter shows that ridicule is often merely the assertion of arrogant ignorance rather than the “amicable collision” (Shaftesbury 31) of rational and social equals. Like reform comedy, The Cry emphases the ludicrousness of the Cry’s specious opinions and their inherent contemptibility. Aiming to laugh readers out of their infatuation with unthinking derision, The Cry seeks to redirect mirth to its proper objects.


34The proliferation of representations of laughter in these works testifies to its fascination for authors traditionally seen as invested in the tender effusions of sympathy and pathos. Writing from the other side of the laugh, these authors grapple with the social and gendered implications of mirth, negotiating the philosophical legacy of Hobbes and of Shaftesbury. While Richardsonian sensibility attempts to curtail the excessive levity of masculine autonomy through a regulatory feminine sensitivity, Collier and Fielding refuse the role of moral embodiment that sensibility increasingly cast women in, cultivating instead a rational detachment from the automatic stimuli of laughter. Distancing their readers from jouissance or immersive reading, they urge reason and stoic management of the passions to transform anarchic mirth into moderate smiles. Yet this necessitates a return to satire in the period when the novel is becoming culturally dominant. Collier and Fielding’s exploration of wit and ridicule defends the role of female wit to arbitrate on, and to create, laughter. The dry, self-deprecating, and ultimately defeated mirth of The Cry suggests that the audience for its humour will necessarily be limited. While Richardson’s anxiety over laughter is resolved by the creation of a tentative and submissive form of raillery, confined within a sentimental community, Collier and Fielding arm themselves with ridicule. Collier and Fielding’s bluestocking satires suggest that, for the marginal and dependent, the best means of getting the laugh on their side lies in ridicule and irony rather than the meek smiles of submission.

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Rebecca Anne Barr, « Pathological Laughter and the Response to Ridicule: Samuel Richardson, Jane Collier and Sarah Fielding », XVII-XVIII, 70 | 2013, 223-244.

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Rebecca Anne Barr, « Pathological Laughter and the Response to Ridicule: Samuel Richardson, Jane Collier and Sarah Fielding », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 70 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 août 2016, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.527

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Rebecca Anne Barr

National University of Ireland, Galway

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