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The New Woman and Humour
Catherine Delyfer et Nathalie Saudo-Welby

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1In his Essay on Laughter (1902), James Sully observed that [a] startlingly new idea, whether in science, religion, or the utilities of life, finds in its intrinsic reasonableness no defence against the attacks of malicious mirth. Sullys prime example of a novel idea being met with hostile jocularity was that of womens emancipation which, he wrote, appeared incongruous throughout history and a subject for hilarity from Greek drama onwards. Only today, Sully added, nearly fifty years after J. S. Mills defence of womens rights had been rejected with amusement, did such a notion begin to seem reasonable, natural and fit, at least in a part of the civilized world (280). Despite her intrinsic reasonableness, the New Woman, however, was an idea which remained incongruent with many peoples notions at the fin de siècle. She was a laughing-stock in the popular press and an object of comedy on stage. The adjective New came to describe not just what was novel, but what seemed threateningly and disturbingly modern. A good illustration of the way the capitalized adjective New became loaded with derision and dislike can be found in the series of articles published in The Westminster Gazette in 1893 and 1895 by the liberal journalist J. A. Spender. Writing as The Philistine, Spender railed against the immorality and morbidity of the New Fiction and its champions.

2In satirical magazines, comedies and conversation, the New Woman was an inexhaustible source of fun. Ridicule is a potent weapon in the maintenance of hegemony (Tickner 163), and under the influence of the music-hall, illustrated journalism and comic postcards, women were frequently the butts of late-Victorian jokes. For the opponents of womens emancipation, mockery was a weapon, which could win them allies even among women. For the feminist writers, ridicule was a constant threat, which they usually negotiated by asserting their womanliness at the same time as they encouraged their readers to take their demands seriously. As a consequence, many New Woman writers adopted the serious styles and forms of discourse which were likely to support their authority and invite respect. But, on the other hand, their serious novels with a purpose earned them the reputation of being vituperative and inflexible, as proponents of rational dress or superior education, or grim extremists with a passion for cycling, smoking and other unwomanly tastes.

3As a result, the womans rights woman was often criticized for her total absence of humour. For the New Woman there is no such thing as a joke, the popular novelist Ouida wrote in 1894 (Christensen Nelson 154). A year later, Hugh Stutfield commented in his antifeminist essay Tommyrotics that the fiction of the modern woman was spoiled by excessive realism, ponderous didacticism and a tendency to take things much too seriously, so that there was no place left for humour in her writings (Christensen Nelson 238). Much of the mockery against the emancipated women involved not just prejudices about the empowered and militant New Women but also age-old clichés about women in general. Women were mocked both because they yearned for new possibilities and because they were considered as cowardly and as less variable, and hence more conservative and fearful of change. For todays readers, these clashes and contradictions lay bare the ideological assumptions that lie behind laughter.

4While the New Women were keen to prove their intellectual worth by serious work and earnest dedication, they also had to bear their subaltern position with as much good humour as they could muster. This double bind was lost on most male observers. In 1895, L. H. Spielmann commented on the almost complete absence of female cartoonists in Punch with the candid observation that

Women, as a rule, are humorists neither born nor made. Often enough they are wits, more frequently satirists. They can make, we are told, but they cannot take, a joke; at any rate, they are usually out of their element in the comic arena. Moreover, as butts for the caricaturist they are unsatisfactory, for in proportion as his efforts are successful, his sense of chivalry is outraged; and we have seen how Keene and others recoiled from the idea. (392)

5The myth of womans humourlessness seems to be timeless and has been diversely interpreted at different periods. Recently, women have been called humourless because they do not often laugh at sexist jokes, so as not to seem to endorse their misogynistic representations (Walker 142). In the Victorian period, women were constrained by the patriarchal injunction not to laugh and let out what James Sully called this symptom of [their] vitality (419). A conduct book told its readers that [t]he womanly woman, respectable and duly subdued, will beware of laughter and its excess and advised women not to talk or laugh loud out of doors; indeed, no lady ought to laugh so as to be heard in the street (Etiquette for Ladies, quoted by Eltis 113). The spontaneous and physical character of laughter, apparent in the contortions of the open mouth and show of teeth, implied a release of inhibitions which put societal norms and order under threat.

6That feminine humour represented a threat was something that even Spielmann was aware of: No woman has ever yet been a caricaturist, in spite of the fact that her femininity befits her pre-eminently for the part. That she has desisted is a mercy for which man may be devoutly thankful (393). Little in the first sentence above could have led us to expect the second, except that Spielmann was writing in 1895, the heyday of New Woman fiction and debate. The female joker and sneerer, who represented a potential danger for patriarchal power, was probably looming too large.

7In the 1890s, in response to the political aggression of ridicule, the New Women strategically learnt how to put humour to their own use. By being funny and entertaining, middle-class emancipated women could make themselves more pleasant to male readers and appear more tolerant of them. Ella Hepworth Dixons My Flirtations (1892), originally published anonymously in the Ladys Pictorial, was described by the Saturday Review as one of the most amusing books we have come across for a long time (quoted in Fehlbaum 189). Even in her more pessimistic Story of a Modern Woman (1894), Dixons emancipated female protagonist maintains that a sense of humour is what women ought to cultivate above all things, especially the poorer classes. With a keen sense of the ridiculous, they would never fall in love at all (74). In the New Womans satires of patriarchal thinking and male self-sufficiency, wit takes on an educational, serious function. Epigrammatic dialogues feature prominently in the novels and short stories of Sarah Grand and Mona Caird, as well as in their militant periodical essays which employ humour and irony to turn the tables on male critics. In fiction and non-fiction alike, irony, parody and comic reversals were among what Ann Heilmann has described as the New Womans indirect strategies.

8Humour almost always brings into play networks of power, and may work to reinforce or upset existing power relations. Tendentious jokes and hostile humour draw a line between aggressors and victims. Humour virtually always has aggression or intellectual combativeness as a main, partial or potential component, Charles Case and Cameron Lippard explain (243). By making their jokes heard publicly—for it is doubtful that women waited so long before they effectively started to laugh—late-Victorian women were trying out forms of authority, touching on new, previously forbidden topics, and shaking the hold of social control. Whether they came out victorious or not was less important than the levelling effect of laughter and the sympathy which is created between the joker and the laugher. The yearning for equality of rights and treatment also took the form of equalizing humour. [D]espite appearances, Jonathan Taylor writes, laughter (almost) always encodes a radical moment of equalisation, sameness, even democratisation (31). When the Irish militant suffragist Eva Gore-Booth said in an address to women textile workers that [t]he climate of thought in England [was] not tropical, she was commenting, in consensual climatic terms, on the conservative and humdrum nature of English political thinking and on the national dislike of violent upheavals, so as to better bring out the desirability of working-class radical energy (Suffragette Manifestos 57). Her witticism was sure to bring a smile that could be more widely shared because it did not seem to be at the expense of anybody in particular.

9Many women deemed it preferable to opt for gentle humour of a feminine type so as not to alienate their male readers and audience. Margaret Stetz has noted that womens awareness of the moral complexities that ringed round the act of targeting an enemy for ridicule led them to distrust the effects of superior humour (46). Is it only in a feminist utopia that men and women will be able to laugh at the same jokes in unison?

10In the twentieth century, the fictional New Woman materialized as the openly militant suffragette, whose methods were regularly described in the press as hysterical and not worth serious consideration. Emmeline Pankhurst knew how to build solidarity in her female listeners and bring them to her side through laughter: They say women have no sense of humour (laughter), she remarked in a speech given as a member of the WSPU, but if it were not so serious, what is being done by men would create a sense of humour in women (applause and laughter) (Suffragette Manifestos 40). If we are to believe the Anglo-American actress and feminist writer Elizabeth Robins, by the time the suffragists toughened their strategies in the early twentieth century, they had learnt how to use publicity, repartee and humorous effects to their advantage. In her comedy Votes for Women (1907), the suffragettes public demonstrations are considered excellent Sunday entertainment. [R]idicule crumples a man up, a sharp-witted public speaker exclaims, [i]t steels a woman. Weve educated ourselves so that we welcome ridicule (Chothia 173). Negotiating laughter had become integrated into the New Womans political apprenticeship.

11As the twentieth century progressed and womens authority asserted itself in an increasing number of educational and professional domains, their strategies became more and more direct. In October 1928, in the Cambridge lectures that were to become A Room of Ones Own, Virginia Woolf even warned women that they would be lost if they stopped to curse or to laugh (122). Anger and laughter here imply wasted energy, a distraction in the completion of a serious, sometimes painful, creative task. But some women participated in the verbal battle with the intention of having the last laugh, and recent scholarship devoted to the feminine political uses of humour confirms that there now is a tradition of womens humour and that it has become more and more assertive and distinctive (Barreca, Blanch, Cixous, Fuchs, Stetz).

12The contributions included in this journal issue examine the rich and contradictory ways in which laughter, jokes, satire and comedy were deployed and reconfigured by New Women and their successors, the suffragettes, in England and America, between the late 1880s and the end of the Edwardian period. In so doing, they emulate Margaret Stetzs efforts to revive the laughing woman, the least remembered woman of the Victorian period (1). Indeed, the following essays recover the creative resourcefulness and ebullient humour of many New Woman novelists, short fiction writers, poets, playwrights and editors.

13In the opening essay, Margaret D. Stetz reminds us that the superiority theory of humour tends to be of little use when dealing with New Woman writings trying to reform gender relations. At a time when the publishing world was dominated by men, women writers use of sneering humour or harsh satire would have guaranteed the immediate rejection of their manuscripts. Instead, Stetz demonstrates, short fiction writers such as Sarah Grand, Beatrice Harraden, Evelyn Sharp, Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler and Mabel E. Wotton turned to less abrasive forms of humour, exploring in particular the corrective potential of the comedy of misrecognition. This surprisingly pervasive strategy allowed them to redress misguided assumptions about the New Women while educating the New Man of the future.

14In the next essay, Heather Marcovitch explores Ella DArcys use of humour and irony in four short stories published in The Yellow Book between 1894 and 1897, as well as in her professional dealings with her publisher John Lane and with her editor Henry Harland in her capacity as his sub-editor. She explains that DArcys comedic tone has been diversely interpreted, even misunderstood, and may be best apprehended through a double, or resisting, reading, and that such a strategy of doubleness—used by women humourists even today—enables both subversion and bonding.

15Mariam Zarif tackles a little-known New Woman novel by Tivoli (Horace William Bleackley), Une Culotte: An Impossible Story of Modern Oxford (1894). She investigates his tactical choice to publish under a gender-neutral pseudonym—thereby encouraging readers assumption that such a novel could only be written by a woman—before examining the humour of inversion and disguise in this political comedy about womens education and contemporary British politics.

16In her study of Irish author Charlotte OConor Eccless hilarious novel, The Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore (1897), Somi Ahn reveals the disruptive potential of non-realist modes of New Woman writing. Though Eccles was concerned with offering serious viable alternatives to patriarchal Victorian views of female aging in her journalism, Ahn shows how she turned to the fantastic farcical mode in her fiction, in order to probe the intersection between ageism and sexism and ultimately champion the old New Woman.

17The visual imagination and cultural construction of the New Woman and her descendant the suffragette were largely shaped by Punch Magazine, which attempted to contain the threat of the rising womans movement by depicting them as laughable figures in its cartoons. However, Katy Birchs essay draws attention for the first time to some New Woman writers contributions to the journal. In her analysis of the poem The Reason Why (1898) by Scottish suffrage campaigner Rosaline Massons and militant suffragist Evelyn Sharps short story The Wreck of “The Ark” (1909), she examines these authors tactical choice of publishing in a venue famous for ridiculing women and shows that their humorous pieces present modern women as more than comic victims.

18Anglo-American actress, playwright, fiction writer and essayist Elizabeth Robins is the focus of the essay by Nathalie Saudo-Welby. Looking at her reflexive novel The Convert (1907), the essay delves into a rich variety of humorous discourses, as the antis derisive laughter crosses fire with the suffragists retaliatory humour and spectacular shock-tactics. Saudo-Welby thus illuminates the versatile agency of humour as a disruption of power dynamics, an effective tool in building support and a highly controlled form of political action and militancy for marginalized citizens.

19The London stage of the 1890s largely exploited New Woman stereotypes for commercial benefit, but suffragist playwrights quickly realized that they too could turn humour to their advantage, as evidenced in Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. Johns How the Vote Was Won (1909) and Pot and Kettle (1909), Beatrice Harradens Lady Geraldines Speech (1909), Netta Syretts Might is Right (1909), and Evelyn Glovers Miss Appleyards Awakening (1911) and A Chat with Mrs Chicky (1912). Eleanor Stewarts analysis of these comedies shows how suffragist humour could destabilize prejudices about women, serve as a tool for protest as well as strengthen the solidarity between activists.

20In the final article of this volume, Rebecca Nesvet examines Julia Constance Fletchers play The Fantasticks (1900) in the context of the writers production and in relation to its 20th and 21st century appropriations. A comic adaptation of Edmond Rostands Les Romanesques (1894), The Fantasticks is analyzed as a New Woman play which debunks the Andromeda myth and uses risky humour to feminist ends. Nesvet demonstrates that the play constitutes a critique of the dramatic and social conventions which represent womens abduction, forced marriage and rape as humorous.

21Taken as a whole, this journal issue reveals that, while the antis humorous tactics may have betrayed their vulnerability (since, as Sully noted, The derisive laughter of the superior is particularly loud in certain cases where the authority is not so real as it might be, 264), the New Womans humorous practices on the other hand conveyed her increasing sense of intellectual freedom and became a source of empowerment. In her witty dialogues, farcical plot twists, ingenious subversions and comic reversals, the feisty New Woman writer destabilized power relations and, moreover, created a sense of shared enjoyment, community, and sisterhood. If, as Sully asserted in The Philosophical Review of July 1900, The mirth of men, the directions of their jesting, have a real significance as determining forces in the stability and the progress of communities, then the merriment of women, the efficacy of their jesting and the distinctiveness of their laughter were matters of considerable import (383). They still are. By throwing light on the way humour became integrated into feminist rhetorical practices at the turn of the century, this volume therefore not only contributes to a literary history of womens humour but also addresses the broader question of knowing to what extent it is possible to speak of feminist humour.

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Barreca, Regina. They Used to Call Me Snow White… But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.

Blanch, Sophie. Women and Comedy. Ed. M. Joannou, The History of British Women’s Writing 1920-1945. Palgrave Macmillan 2013. 112–28.

Case, Charles E., and Cameron D. Lippard. Humorous Assaults on Patriarchal Ideology. Sociological Inquiry 79.2 (2009): 240–55.

Chothia, Jean, ed. The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

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Cixous, Hélène. Le Rire de la Méduse et autres ironies. Paris: Galilée, 2010.

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Eltis, Sos. Womens Suffrage and Theatricality. Ed. Peter Yeandle, Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards. Politics, Performance and Popular Culture: Theatre and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Manchester: MUP, 2016. 111–27.

Fehlbaum, Valerie. Ella Heptworth Dixons My Flirtations: The New Woman and the Marriage Market. Victorian Review 44.2 (2018): 189–92.

Fuchs Abrams, Sabrina. Transgressive Humor of American Women Writers. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird. Manchester: MUP, 2004.

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Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Three Guineas. Oxford: OUP, 1992.

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Catherine Delyfer et Nathalie Saudo-Welby, « Introduction »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 96 Automne | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Delyfer

Catherine Delyfer is a member of the C.A.S Research Centre and Professor of English at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès. Her research explores British fin-de-siècle culture, literature, art, gender, and the interplay between texts and images. She is the author of Art and Womandhood in Fin-de-Siècle Writing: The Fiction of Lucas Malet, 1880-1931 (Pickering & Chatto 2011; Routledge 2015) and the editor or co-editor of various journal issues, including Female Aestheticism (Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 2011), Cross-Dressing in Fact and in Fiction (E-Rea, 2019), Female Suffrage in British Art, Literature and History (Caliban 2019) and Victorian and Edwardian Interiors (Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 2023, in progress). Her latest publications include “Re-writing myths of creativity: Pygmalionism, Galatea figures, and the revenge of the muse in fin-de-siècle literature by women” (in H. Laird ed., The History of British Women’s Writing, 1880-1920, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); “The Illustrator as Critic: Desire, Curiosity and the Myth of Persephone in Jessie M. King’s Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates” (The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 28, 2019); and “Literary Impressions, Cultural Transfers, and Material Reading: Rudyard Kipling’s ‘An Habitation Enforced’ as a French objet d’art” (Image&Narrative 20.4, 2019).
Catherine Delyfer est membre du centre de recherches du C.A.S. et Professeur au département d’Etudes Anglophones de l’Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès. Sa recherche porte sur la culture, la littérature et les arts de la fin du dix-neuvième siècle, les études de genre et les rapports texte/image. Elle est l’auteure de Art and Womandhood in Fin-de-Siècle Writing: The Fiction of Lucas Malet, 1880-1931 (Pickering & Chatto 2011; Routledge 2015) et elle a dirigé ou co-dirigé plusieurs numéros de revues, en particulier Female Aestheticism (Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 2011), Cross-Dressing in Fact and in Fiction (E-Rea, 2019), Female Suffrage in British Art, Literature and History (Caliban 2019) et Victorian and Edwardian Interiors (Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 2023, en cours). Ses publications récentes incluent “Re-writing myths of creativity: Pygmalionism, Galatea figures, and the revenge of the muse in fin-de-siècle literature by women” (in H. Laird ed., The History of British Women’s Writing, 1880-1920, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); “The Illustrator as Critic: Desire, Curiosity and the Myth of Persephone in Jessie M. King’s Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates” (The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 28, 2019); et “Literary Impressions, Cultural Transfers, and Material Reading: Rudyard Kipling’s ‘An Habitation Enforced’ as a French objet d’art” (Image&Narrative 20.4, 2019).

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Nathalie Saudo-Welby

Nathalie Saudo-Welby is a Senior Lecturer at the Université de Picardie in Amiens, France, where she teaches British Literature and translation. Her doctorate (2003) focuses on degeneration in British literature (1886-1913. She has published some thirty essays on late Victorian literature, women’s writing and women’s perception of conflict. Her book on the New Woman, Le Courage de déplaire, was published by Classiques Garnier in 2019.
Nathalie Saudo-Welby
est Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Picardie à Amiens en France. Elle y enseigne la littérature et la traduction. Son doctorat portait sur la notion de dégénérescence dans la littérature britannique fin-de-siècle et édouardienne. Titulaire de l’habilitation à diriger des recherches, elle a publié plus d’une trentaine d’articles sur la littérature victorienne, les écrits de femmes et la perception féminine des conflits. Sa monographie sur la Nouvelle Femme, Le Courage de déplaire est parue chez Classiques Garnier en 2019.

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