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‘Woman Suffrage Precipice’: The Gender Politics of Laughter in Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert (1907)

Comment rire du vote des femmes ? Humour et politique dans The Convert d’Elizabeth Robins
Nathalie Saudo-Welby


Actrice devenue dramaturge et militante politique, Elizabeth Robins était familière des usages politiques du rire. Son roman The Convert [La convertie] associe le rire à la théâtralité et à l’action et illustre la façon dont l’humour peut devenir une stratégie de pouvoir féminin. La Nouvelle Femme était souvent critiquée pour son absence d’humour, et les romans féministes engagés furent reçus avec sérieux et gravité. Elizabeth Robins voulait d’ailleurs que sa pièce politique Votes for Women fût « la première à traiter du vote des femmes avec sérieux ». Pourtant, lorsqu’elle transforma sa pièce en roman, le rire y prit une place centrale. La Nouvelle Femme faisait fréquemment l’objet de caricatures, la Suffragette était la risée de l’opinion, et les manifestations féministes étaient considérées comme « un bon divertissement pour le dimanche après-midi ». Robins retourna ces discours à son avantage en utilisant l’humour pour adoucir les critiques contenues dans son roman. Les femmes n’avaient-elles pas le don de distraire les autres ? Dans les joutes verbales et dans les échanges animés entre les oratrices et leur public, Elizabeth Robins mène également une réflexion sur les usages genrés du rire. Son roman didactique suggère que tout ne doit pas être « matière à rire » et que la littérature féministe doit rendre impossible une certaine forme d’humour. Mais il indique aussi que pendant que les hommes rient, les femmes comprennent certaines choses. Le volume des rires est proportionnel à la gravité et à l’importance de la question féminine. En discutant avec une suffragette, Vida comprend ses responsabilités politiques, se construit une armure, et transforme son sens de la repartie en arme politique.

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1Elizabeth Robins was a versatile figure. She was an American who started an acting career in England in the 1890s. From 1892, she started writing short stories, novels, a play and a few essays. She was a performer, defender, translator and producer of the plays of Henrik Ibsen in both Britain and America. Her early career resembles the ambitions of Lyndall, the feminist heroine of Olive Schreiner’s New Woman novel The Story of an African Farm (1883), who writes plays, dreams of being an actress, and contemplates crossing the sea to reach her ends (Schreiner 152, 183). A woman with serious political commitments, Elizabeth Robins was a fighter throughout her life, and Kerry Powell has called her the ‘pre-eminent New Woman of the theatrical world’ for her efforts to promote non-commercial drama in England and Scotland (Powell 78). Some of Robins’s early writings dealt with what was then known as the ‘Woman Question’, but she was initially reluctant to commit herself to the cause of women’s suffrage. However, in August 1906, she started writing a play which would represent her personal contribution to the cause: Votes for Women! In 1907, the play was ready and drew the support of G. B. Shaw and Harley Granville-Barker (Gates 160).

  • 1 Letter of January 19th 1907 to her sister-in-law Margaret Dreier Robins (quoted by Gates 160). She (...)

2In contrast to the satirical thrust of previous suffrage plays, Elizabeth Robins wanted her political drama to ‘deal with the Suffrage Question for the first time in a serious fashion’.1 The central character, Vida Levering, is a woman with a past: she had become pregnant by a young upper-class politician, Geoffrey Stonor, who had declined to marry her because of his father’s opposition. The audience understands, without it being stated directly, that Vida succumbed to his pressure to have an abortion, which she has come to regret. After that, she refused to have anything to do with Stonor, even after his father’s death made their marriage possible. Years later, when Stonor is about to become engaged to Jean Dunbarton, an attractive but innocent young lady, Jean discovers the secret and her insistence encourages Vida to ask him for political and financial support for the women’s suffrage campaign in reparation for his past misdeed. Vida’s personal past becomes political leverage. (Vida’s loss of her child and her subsequent reluctance to marry and have children also recall Schreiner’s New Woman heroine Lyndall.)

  • 2 Angela V. John mentions 10 matinées and 13 evening performances. The play was also given in New Yor (...)

3This play with a purpose integrates melodramatic elements and contains witty dialogues, political debate and a reflection on women’s role as social entertainers. The play was performed a total of 23 times.2 In April 1907, when the performances had only just started, Elizabeth Robins started working on expanding the play into a novel, The Convert, which came out in October 1907. One of the most important additional features in the novel is Robins’s introduction of a wide variety of comic elements. In this way she turns the tables on the previous conservative use of humour to belittle and ridicule the political cause of women.

4The New Woman and Women’s Rights Women had been satirical targets in the press and in fiction since the 1880s, and the suffragettes were, too, in the early twentieth century. The caricatures of suffragettes borrowed heavily from the previous stereotypes of womanhood, in particular those attached to the figure of the New Woman: the Shrieking Sisterhood and their hysterical tendencies, the old maid and her masculine physique and proclivities, the domineering wife, etc. There was no need for a new type, Lisa Tickner explains, for the ‘imaginative prototype’ of the suffragette readily fitted the old ones, even after prejudices had been threatened and even sometimes defeated by photographs and the sight of real women in the processions (Tickner 166). In the music hall, in comic postcards, and in illustrated journalism, the New Woman long ‘remained a spectral presence to haunt the arguments of feminists and inflect their public reception’ (Tickner 184). And, as Sandra Stanley Holton has shown in her survey of ‘masculinist historical accounts’, suffragette militancy remained a matter for sardonic humour long after it was followed by effect (Holton 22–24).

5The forms of humour directed against the emancipated women ranged from hostile and superior sexist quips and caricatures to gentle satire of educated lady-doctors. However, increasingly, suffragist propaganda also used humorous tactics to attack sexist prejudices and male privileges. The varieties of humorous discourse in The Convert confirm the power of humour in ‘reflecting, perpetuating, or altering relationships of power and authority’ (Case and Lippard 242). Robins’s novel documents the humour of the antis when she has cockney hecklers and upper-class sneerers laugh at suffragist speakers in derision. But it also illustrates the shock-tactics and retaliatory strategies of suffragists’ oratory as well as their capacity to give their public, who expected to be amused by their spectacular performances, an alternative form of entertainment. Robins also explores several other comic modes. Building on the connections between popular entertainment forms and the suffrage movement, Laura Winkiel has shown the presence of a burlesque strain in the novel’s ‘sexualized performances of suffrage oratory’, as Robins deflates affect and melodrama so as to debunk traditional representations of gender roles (Winkiel 573). The burlesque tone acts as a corrective to the representation of the victimized woman that was traditionally found in melodrama and of the reckless, unsexed militant that was found in the press. Joanne Gates has suggested that Vida’s slightly reluctant performance of the part of the gently feminine ‘ironic humourist’ lends some plausibility to her transformation into a skilled orator (Gates 163).

6To a greater extent in the novel than in the play, humour is not simply a strategy to sweeten the political pill, it is also a topic of conversation and an object of reflection. In The Convert, laughter is an effect of performance, reflecting the dramatic strategies used by the suffragettes in the 1900s, such as dressing up, false identities and spectacular techniques. As this essay will show, the uses of comedy and laughter also have the force of an argument: humour is an element in the debate on women’s public representation and attitudes. While she was writing the novel, Robins was devoting some theoretical thinking to the topic. In an article entitled ‘The Feministe Movement in England’, published in Collier’s Weekly in New York on June 29th 1907, she associated her own conversion to the cause with a change in her perception of woman’s wits:

women have a great deal still to learn about themselves. I have been prosecuting my education in this direction almost daily since a certain memorable afternoon in Trafalgar Square when I first heard women talking politics in public. I went out of shamefaced curiosity, my head full of masculine criticism as to woman’s limitations, her well-known inability to stick to the point, her poverty in logic and in humour, and the impossibility, in any case, of her coping with the mob. (Robins 1913, 38)

  • 3 Punch (26 May 1894) (quoted by Marks 252).
  • 4 Subsequent references to The Convert will appear as follows: (C x)

7While pointing to the autobiographical origin of Vida’s conversion, these lines also reveal their author’s awareness that preconceived ideas about women’s lack of humour and a pragmatic awareness of the dangers of humour at home were damaging women’s confidence in their wittiness and in the power of laughter. When writing The Convert, Robins put the liberating power of humour into practice. Following in the steps of the vocal New Woman, who can ‘never be quiet’,3 the suffragette, a ‘champion shocker’ (C 191),4 is mostly presented as a discursive disrupter: her desire to shock and provoke a response anticipates the more violent tactics of the following years.

8Laughter is an illocutionary effect which is meant to resonate outside the text. It participates in the politics of disruption that suffragettes rallied to in their effort to be heard. Impactful discourse ending in laughter helps create a continuum between the fictional world and that of the Edwardian readers who were to be converted. Robins’s suffrage novel resonates with the laughs and voices of both sexes and different classes. Laughter is a response which elicits comments, calls for disagreement and makes the reader think. The novel’s multivoicedness allows laughter to be investigated from several directions, so that it ‘look[s] right as well as left’ (C 143), a multifaceted approach which a character in the novel associates with successful irony. Irony is itself a double-edged discourse which relies on complicity and understanding. Within the complex workings of fictional discourse, it also builds support and understanding. Feminist laughter appears as an effect of controlled, effective communication, rather than of thoughtlessness and the quick release of emotional energy.

9The way laughter becomes a metaphor for controlled political action in The Convert allows us to understand better how humour could later be consciously practised by suffragettes as a form of militancy (Cowman). The Convert delineates a field of gender politics in which laughter from the marginalized and superior laughter exchange fire. The spectacular, theatrical scenes of suffrage meetings invite us to examine ‘the laughter represented in the texts and the laughter they intend to raise’ (Pfister viii). An analysis of The Convert’s reflexive comedy should thus contribute to a history of English laughter which needs to pay greater attention to how women have been not only the targets of laughter as subordinates, but also the initiators of laughter as marginalised citizens.

‘Heaping ridicule on the political woman’

10The novel’s first thirteen chapters trace the awakening of Vida’s political consciousness. The last three more or less correspond to the play’s action, which spans over six hours. Until the novel catches up with the play’s material, its tone remains light-hearted. Rather than narrating the detail of the awful secret in Vida’s life, which would have made the novel dark and distasteful to readers, Elizabeth Robins chooses to focus on the context of the women’s suffrage campaign and on Vida’s political apprenticeship. The tone of the opening recreates the context of public scorn towards the suffrage movement that existed at the time. The novel begins as if it were a mildly satirical, conservative society comedy in which upper class guests air their social prejudices: the suffragettes’ action in the gallery of the House of Commons is called ‘idiotic’ and presented as matter for entertainment. The suffragette is described as a laughing stock: ‘a woman in a scrimmage can never be a heroic figure. . . . She’s just funny, don’t you know!’ (C 58) The guests at Lady John Ulland’s weekend house party demonstrate their wit by poking fun at the ‘feminine folly’ (C 57) behind the suffrage movement, and Vida, the future convert, refers to what she calls the ‘Suffrage nonsense’ (C 55). ‘Everyone must have his kick at this Suffrage Ball’, says the narrator (C 58).

11Earlier, in the second chapter, one of the guests at a smart London dinner party, Mrs Graham Townley, is a caricature of the ‘political woman’. She has the reputation of being highly intelligent with an ‘interest in public affairs . . . bounded only by the limits of the Empire’ (C 14). A philanthropist, she has ‘found time to reform the administration of a great London hospital’. Her physical appearance attests to her domineering masculine temper: her grey hair is ‘dressed commandingly’ and towers ‘aggressively . . . over the bald pate of the minister’, who ‘shun[s] her like the plague’ (C 11, 19). The narrative voice sides with general opinion to consider her the type of the masculinized New Woman.

Rich, childless, lonely, with more wits than occupation, practically shelved at a time when her intellectual life is most alert—the Mrs. Townleys of the world do, it must be admitted, labour under the delusion that men fighting the battle of public life, go out to dine for the express purpose of telling the intelligent female ‘all about it’. She is a staunch believer not so much in women’s influence as in woman’s. And there is no doubt in her mind which woman’s. (C 19–20)

  • 5 Authors of New Woman novels were caught in the same difficulty, as they often found that they had t (...)

12What is mocked is not so much her political ideas as the way she gives a bad image of her sex by pestering male politicians and by weighing down and spoiling drawing-room chat:5 ‘Her form of conversation consists in plying her victim with questions. Not here one there one, to keep the ball rolling, but a steady and pitiless fire of “Do you think?” and “Why do you?”’ (C 20) This satirical description positions the narrator on the side of the conservatives who liked women not to disturb the appearance of social order. The second chapter could almost be taken from an antifeminist novel: the readers will smile at the expense of the emancipated women, and support male expectations and prejudice.

13This type of merriment fits with J. Holmes and M. Marra’s definition of ‘reinforcing humour’ which ‘maintains or reinforces the status quo’ by strengthening ‘existing solidarity relationships’ and ‘existing power relationships’ (Holmes & Marra 70). While Mrs Townley has a tendency to speak of woman as an essence, the narrative voice generalizes about political women in a style which is reminiscent of the newspaper articles and satirical cartoons which made fun of women’s emancipation (Tickner 160–67). Even Vida sometimes sounds like their spokeswoman. ‘For the next few minutes’, Elizabeth Robins writes, ‘they made common cause in heaping ridicule on “the political woman”’ (C 21). According to Angela John, these ‘thinly disguised parodies of polite society’ (John 215) reflect Elizabeth Robins’s initial ambivalence towards the suffrage cause. Her high public profile as a famous actress and published author made the public expression of her views problematic, because she was caught between ‘conflicting loyalties’ (John 216). In November 1905, just a year before she started writing the play, Robins was still confused over the issue and she was even asked to participate, as an opponent, in a ‘drawing-room debate’ organized by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (John 199). Angela John explains that the drawing-room scenes probably reflect the extent to which being exposed to male prejudices in her social circles forced her to change her views: ‘Elizabeth’s attendance at polite dinner parties seems to have played a part not only in supplying background and speech for writing but also in helping convince her of her own developing views and need to articulate them at a time when the suffrage message was becoming more prominent’ (John 200). The same ambiguity can be found in Elizabeth Robins’s novel George Mandeville’s Husband, published in 1894 under the indeterminate pseudonym C. E. Raymond, which can be read as an antifeminist novel mocking emancipated women authors.

14However, anti-suffrage humour in The Convert seems to belong to a transitory phase. Vida acknowledges that her conversation tends to be frivolous, and grows uneasy at judging women negatively. The narrator struggles to interpret this proleptic moment:

Was it consciousness of this being the second time during the evening that she had employed the too common vaunt of the woman of that particular world? Did some ironic echo reach her of that same boast (often as mirthless and as pitiful as the painted smile on the cruder face), the ‘I’m afraid I’m rather frivolous’ of the well-to-do woman, whose frivolity—invaluable asset!—is beginning to show wear? (C 22)

15The hackneyed idea that women are born to ‘take on themselves the onus of entertainment’ (C 21), to ease tensions and produce pleasurable sensations, is presented as both an asset and a handicap. Vida is slightly uneasy when she observes that ‘All the women . . . are trying with might and main to amuse the men, and all the men are more or less permitting the women to succeed’ (C 23). The common perception of women as entertainers justifies their not being taken seriously or connected with serious issues. In accepting their roles as entertainers, women remain separated from the most serious aspects of life, and are constantly assigned a subordinate position. Vida later reflects that she must learn not to smile at the ludicrousness of women’s political efforts (C 144). Her conversion to fully accepting the possibilities of subversive humour is late in coming, for in chapter 12, as if in fear of being contaminated by the suffragettes’ tactics, she still apologizes to her conservative friend, Lord Borrodaile for using her wit for serious purposes: ‘I went and Trafalgar-Squared you, when I ought to have amused you’ (C 174).

16In the three suffrage meetings in Trafalgar Square, some of the comedy stems from women’s poor rhetorical skills. Some women are ridiculous and incompetent speakers, whose infelicitous rhetorical attempts lead to exchanges which read like quickfire theatrical comedy (C 193). In these theatrical passages, the novel becomes a window open onto reality, since some of the dialogues were practically transcriptions of suffrage meetings and some of the speakers can even be identified. The pretty, pert speaker who ‘pitch[es] her rather thin voice several notes too high’ raises a ‘very pandemonium of merriment’ (C 104). But gradually, laughter and ridicule are subjected to an ideological revaluation: their argumentative function changes. The women speakers may be mocked and taunted by some hecklers in the crowd, but the best of them use humour to their advantage. By playing to the expectations of the crowd for entertainment and by responding to their teasing in ways that question sexist clichés, they combine entertainment and criticism. Subversive humour and reversal scenes tilt the balance of power.

  • 6 The public addressed by the suffragettes during their meetings was composed of ‘strangers’, in the (...)
  • 7 ‘The accusation of sexlessness brought against the curled darlings of society by these hard-working (...)

17Showing the public performances of the ‘neo-Suffragists’ (C 164) allows Robins to construct a discursive public space in which humour is redirected towards unexpected targets, whether by the orators, by the antis or by ‘strangers’.6 Vida’s first experience of a suffrage meeting gives rise to a piece of situational irony which destabilizes the power balance. On a Sunday afternoon, having grown curious to see for themselves what a suffrage meeting is like, Vida and her half-sister make their way to Trafalgar Square, dressed as plainly as they can, with a bunch of violets in their hats. While they imagine themselves to be radically different from the disreputable crowd around them, they are spontaneously mistaken for pro-suffrage ladies. They realize that the supporters of the cause include many well-meaning men, some policemen, and sensible working-class women. The comedy of the scene is built on reversal: the upper-class ladies realize that the so-called ‘sexless monstrosities’ are normal women, whereas they themselves, as Vida learns later, are regarded as ‘sexless creatures’ by the suffragettes because of their lack of ‘sex-pride’ (C 160–61).7 At the end of Vida’s first exploratory trip, the ladies hide their faces for fear of being identified by acquaintances among the spectators, so that even the omniscient narrator’s power is restricted and the narrative voice struggles to elucidate the heroine’s thoughts and to read forerunning signs of conversion in her face:

Vida Levering’s air of almost strained attention was an unconscious public confession: ‘I haven’t understood these strange women; I haven’t understood the spirit of the mob that hoots the man we know vaguely for their champion; I haven’t understood the allusions nor the argot that they talk; I can’t check the history that peasant has appealed to. In the midst of so much that is obscure, it is meet to reserve judgment.’ Something of that might have been read in the look lifted once or twice as though in wonderment . . . (C 86).

18Vida remains irresolute but the ground has been laid for her to realize that she should at least make another visit to Trafalgar Square. This scene is echoed later when, for fear of being recognized, the conservative politician Stonor attends a suffrage meeting with goggles and an uplifted collar (C 144). The parallel between the two characters foreshadows the ending when, against his will, Stonor becomes a supporter of women’s suffrage. Elizabeth Robins had observed in her essay on ‘The Feministe Movement’ that there was a great ‘reserve force behind the movement’ and that ‘everything minister[ed] to it’:

in the hundreds of meetings, public and private, held throughout England for the ventilation of the subject [of woman’s freedom], the prime difficulty encountered of late in getting up a debate is to find anybody who can be induced to oppose the notion. Has it been discovered that all the telling arguments, witty or wise, are on the side of the reform?’ (Robins 1913, 42–43)

19Using political arguments and some conventional literary devices, the novel gives an idea of the ineluctable force behind the movement and shows how even the opponents’ claims could turn into arguments for reform.

‘Something serious at the bottom of this’

20The witty conversations in the opening chapters make them read like Oscar Wilde’s comedies, in which serious questions are treated as opportunities to shine in society so that the reader might almost believe that they will never be considered seriously. However, these conversations lead to a major argumentative turn in the novel: the idea that when too much ridicule is heaped upon a cause, laughter becomes the symptom of something grave. In the words of a suffragist speaker, ‘Everybody’s laughing at them—why, there must be something serious at the bottom of this!’ (C 112) Each comic situation has its serious side, and only the frivolous can fail to perceive it.

21One lesson which Vida learns from the suffragettes is that the ridicule directed at militant women is a symptom, a sign of the times which cannot be ignored. Laughter cannot just be dismissive. The louder the laugh, the greater the significance. In the second suffrage meeting, Ernestine Blunt, the speaker of genius, so skilled in subversive humour, objects to ending a meeting on a comic note and pronounces the ‘red-hot word’ of revolt:

‘Against no revolt has there ever been such a torrent of ridicule let loose as against the Women’s Movement. . . . we find that no movement before ours has ever had so much laughter to face’. Through the renewed merriment she went on: ‘. . . behind [our men-folk’s] old theory of woman as “half angel, half idiot,” is a sneaking feeling that “woman is a huge joke.”’ (C 204)

22The mirth generated by the suffragettes’ acts of disruption says little of the suffragettes themselves, but it reveals that women are generally treated as a joke, as though nothing that concerned them could be taken seriously. Men even dare to laugh when women are sent to prison for standing up for their rights (C 205). Comedy has such a strong pull that it seems cleverer to perpetuate the symptom and put it to good use. The demonstrations should remain ‘good Sunday afternoon street entertainment’ (C 83), but the object of ridicule needs to change.

23Feminist humour needs to put an end to the ‘quiet old days of wit and smiles’ (Caird 1908, 71) in favour of more subversive humorous forms. Within this new logic, the weak are not predestined to be laughed at, but can turn the laughter against their oppressors: it can become a weapon, a function it has always had in high society: ‘The comic laugh—most dreaded of all the weapons in the social armoury’ (C 71). Its use needs to be adapted to the task of mocking patriarchal power. Just as it would not do for the suffragist speakers to alienate the policemen, it is important not to humiliate the men. Historically, we learn, women have always ‘laugh[ed] in [their] sleeves’:

‘Men have imagined—they imagine still, that we have never noticed how ridiculous they can be. You see’—[Ernestine] leaned over and spoke confidentially—‘we’ve never dared break it to them.’
‘Haw! Haw!’
‘We know they couldn’t bear it.’
‘So we’ve done all our laughing in our sleeves. Yes—and some years our sleeves had to be made—like balloons!’ She pulled out the loose alpaca of her own while the workmen chuckled with appreciation.
‘I bet on Ernestine any’ow’, said a young man, with an air of admitting himself a bold original fellow.
‘Well, open laughter is less dangerous laughter. It’s even a guide; it helps us to find out things some of us wouldn’t know otherwise’. (C 205)

24Ernestine Blunt, the best suffragette speaker, associates gestures and words in a way which evokes the stage directions in a play (although this section does not belong in the original play). Her counter-intuitive idea that ‘open laughter is less dangerous laughter’ matches her characterization as a woman whose thinking and reasoning are entirely guided by the project of women’s emancipation, regardless of the consequences.

25Why should indirect laughter be dangerous to women? Because it obfuscates the reality of women’s oppression and undercuts their emancipatory impulse. There is a similar attitude at work in the way Ernestine Blunt, whom Vida later calls a ‘beguiler’ (C 176), theorizes ridicule as the weapon of the weak: isn’t it rather the lot of the weak to be ridiculed? Ridicule is based on an assumption of superiority and a determination to reinforce that imbalance without questioning it. Its use as a weapon by the anti-feminists reveals a dishonourable avoidance of confrontation and betrays a form of political vulnerability. On their side, the victims learn from experience. Ernestine Blunt calls the cartoonist her ‘unconscious friend’ for giving women a sense of their power and helping them build their armour:

‘I tell you, ridicule crumples a man up. It steels a woman. We’ve come to know the value of ridicule. We’ve educated ourselves so that we welcome ridicule. We owe our sincerest thanks to the comic writers. The cartoonist is our unconscious friend. Who cartoons people who are of no importance? What advertisement is so sure of being remembered? If we didn’t know it by any other sign, the comic papers would tell us—we’ve arrived!’ (C 252) [this section is in the play]

26Ernestine Blunt—a name that encapsulates her earnest, outspoken manner—formulates a gendered theory of ridicule which serves her rhetorical tactics. Her challenge goes against the stereotype that women do not have a sense of humour and proves that they are able to build on the anti-suffrage jokes and quips, and convert the energy liberated by laughter into fuel for the feminist cause.

27Ernestine’s allusion to cartoonists echoes an earlier episode when the politician Geoffrey Stonor is depicted in a favourable light for his ability to laugh at caricatures of himself and of his friends (C 53). Stonor has a sense of humour, and is clever enough to turn the ‘sacrilege’ threatening authority into an empowering experience. Such a man appears almost invincible. Since ‘no movement has ever had so much laughter to face’ (C 204), the suffrage women will need a lot of resilience to defuse the mockeries. The novel’s writing gives evidence of some of the possible strategies.

Indirect Strategies and Hidden Knowledge

28Elizabeth Robins is a great ironist, and, notwithstanding the text’s dismissal of indirect strategies, cases of dramatic irony abound in the text. For instance, the narrator compares Lord Borrodaile to a tramp, because the latter is ‘one of the unemployed, like himself’ (C 181). Irony was a subversive ingredient of suffrage theatre (Costa). In dramatic and situational irony, the reader and spectator know more than the powerful characters, and some complicity is created between the ironist and the reader/spectator, often to the advantage of the subaltern. The shared knowledge and sympathy that underpin the irony upsets the balance of power, and is empowering to women.

29In the drawing-room conversations, women’s rights women and suffragettes are ridiculed. The gentlemen wonder whether the perspective of women’s enfranchisement should be regarded as a ‘suffrage precipice’ or as a ‘mud-puddle’ (C 56), but the satirical aim is also transferred to the men who leave it entirely to women to ensure the harmony of dinner-table exchanges. Sir William Haycroft, the cabinet minister, hates being taken onto political ground at the dinner-table, but he is incapable of devising safe conversation topics himself. The responsibility of making small talk falls entirely upon the women.

The man Vida had rescued from Mrs Graham Townley was, when in the society of women, so accustomed to seeing them take on themselves the onus of entertainment, that when the ‘Order’ was exhausted, had Vida not invented another topic, there would have been an absolute cessation of all converse till Mrs Graham Townley had again caught him up like a big reluctant fish on the hook of interrogation. (C 21)

30The cabinet minister appears ineffective and feminised: ‘Haycroft at a party was, like so many Englishmen, as the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin’ (C 21). What should we make of a politician who is not even able to contribute to the social harmony of a small set of people of his own kind?

31Women’s humour challenges patriarchal dominance by tilting the balance of power. In an episode about women’s urge to be informed, Robins pokes fun at patriarchal privileges. Since the husband of Vida’s half-sister, Mrs Fox-Moore, wants ‘to be allowed the privilege to open [his] paper for [him]self’ and cannot stand his own copy of The Times to be even slightly creased before he reads it, she has chosen to subscribe to an extra copy so that she can read the news first-hand and preserve peace and quiet at home. The authority of a fussy male is undermined by a woman’s silent determination (C 35).

32While this episode speaks for itself, it is often the case that irony is created when some awareness of class consciousness brings new light to a situation. Even the male cockney socialist, whose direct aggressive strategies raise pandemonium in the crowd, can use irony to his advantage:

‘What do you know about it? You can’t even talk grammar’.
His broad smile faltered a little.
‘Oh, what shame!’ said Jean, full of sympathy. ‘He’s a dear—that funny cockney’.
But he had been dashed for the merest moment.
‘I’m not ’ere to talk grammar, but to talk Reform. I ain’t defendin’ my grammar’, he said, on second thoughts, ‘but I’ll say in pawssing that if my mother ’ad ’ad ’er rights, maybe my grammar would ’ave been better’.
It was a thrust that seemed to go home. (C 258)

  • 8 ‘Woman may be pardoned for wondering if it may not have been in part her humaner instinct about som (...)

33The heckler’s censure of the socialist speaker’s use of English, and Jean’s condescending tone position them above the socialist speaker. While filling the inferior place which is assigned to him because of his poor grammar, the ‘funny cockney’ invites those who laughed at him to start laughing along with him, with the result that their hostile spirit backfires against them. His sense of irony and repartee make him a winner in a contest which involves class. His class identity, made apparent through his language, initially weakens his legitimacy, but Robins chooses to make this man of humbler origin the winner in the verbal contest, and his class along with him. The listener/reader is made complicit in the irony, and sides with the jester. Emotional sympathy is a first step towards developing political affinities. That the upper-class Jean Dunbarton is unable to join in the crowd’s mockery of the weak is an index of her womanliness and a sign of her idealization. Robins explained in her essay ‘Woman’s Secret’ that women’s lack of humour could often be attributed to their humane feelings, which prevented them from laughing at anybody’s expense.8 By contrast, the superior heckler of uncertain gender uses what Robins may have regarded as a masculine strategy of finding support.

34The pragmatics of laughter in The Convert are in fact more complex than the gendered comments suggest. Rising above the voices of the crowd, the narrator’s voice often draws the reader’s attention to shades of meaning that speak in favour of women’s suffrage. By providing these tonal clues, the third-person narrator inflects our judgement of the characters (White 75). For instance, the fact that Vida and Mrs Fox-Moore are disposed to laugh when a working woman takes the floor betrays the weakness of their political understanding: they fail to note that her presence reveals the broadening social scope of the campaign. Besides, her address galvanizes the crowd (C 83). Vida, who was once addressed by a gentleman as ‘My Dear Ironist’ (C 143), gradually learns that there are things you ‘don’t want to smile at’ (144).

  • 9 The heroine of Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus (1894) has children of her own, but chooses to (...)

35As Vida changes, so does what she finds amusing, and there comes a point when she deliberately uses humour as a strategy to discuss what was then considered shameful and unspeakable. By doing so, she shifts the perspective to the women’s side. In the above-mentioned conversation between the newly-made cabinet minister and the tedious Mrs Townley, Vida releases him from his entanglement and suggests a political measure in order to amuse him. He becomes alarmed at the conversation moving onto political grounds again, but he is relieved when he hears her proposal that only single women should have children: ‘those who have found satisfactory husbands or wives are to rest content with their good fortune, and not be so greedy as to insist on having the children, too. . . . But, on the other hand, all the lonely women, the widows and spinsters, who haven’t got anything else, they shall have the children’ (C 22). By dissociating motherhood from conjugal love and heterosexual unions, Vida speaks in defence of the women with a past and of the feminists who chose to adopt children.9 William Haycroft cannot think that such a preposterous suggestion has been made seriously: ‘His gravity relaxe[s]’ and he answers, in the same playful tone, that he would support another extreme measure ‘that shall make an allowance of one child to every single woman the proper and accepted arrangement. No questions asked, and no disgrace’ (C 22). Once the cabinet minister has playfully pronounced what was inconceivable at the time, Elizabeth Robins conveniently interrupts the conversation by having Vida declare this right to be a ‘woman’s title to honour’ and turn to her other table neighbour. With a playwright’s sleight of hand, she leaves the conversation and its interpretation hanging. The ludicrousness of the proposal could have been met with laughter, but it is not. Is this entertaining small talk or political subversion? Are the conversationalists merely playing at wittily unsettling established prejudices? In either case, the woman with a past and the single mother have been given a passing form of moral authority.

Humour and Laughter as Metaphors for Successful Action

36The debate on suffrage humour comes to an apparent close in the novel’s last pages when the narrator comments that suffrage is no longer a laughing matter in the exclusive Fox-Moore circle:

It was a mark of how far the Women’s Cause had travelled that, although there was no man there (except the ineffectual Farnborough)—no one to speak of it even with tolerance, there was also no one, not even Greatorex, who any longer felt the matter to be much of a joke. . . . The mere mention of Women’s Suffrage in general society (rarest of happenings now)—that topic which had been the prolific mother of so much merriment, bred in these days but silence and constraint. . . . The thing couldn’t be laughed at any longer, but it could still be pretended it wasn’t there. (C 235–36)

37Robins optimistically envisions the period after 1907 as a time of political transition when women’s suffrage will become so grave that it is hushed and almost taboo. Historically, we know that, on the contrary, the suffragettes remained a satirical target and that their violent tactics started generating more general condemnation, and even consternation, after 1907. In The Convert, in contrast, the humour remains as a literary substitute for action and a political alternative to violence. Its illocutionary force appears in the suffrage meetings: while some sneer, boo and cat-call, others snigger and jeer, ‘howl with derisive joy’ (C 87) or even ‘roar with delight’ (C 112).

38There is a sense in which, with its illocutionary effects, humour is a metaphor for the constructive, positive action that the suffragettes hoped for, a trope expressing the desire for change and the need for support. It is significant that Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who founded the suffragist newspaper Votes for Women with her husband in 1907, justified her dislike of radical militancy with a reference to humour as a militant strategy: ‘Doing something silly’, she explained in 1908, ‘is the woman’s alternative to doing something cruel. The effect is the same. We use no violence because we can win freedom for women without it; because we have discovered an alternative . . . woman’s wit’ (quoted by Cowman 170). The suffragette is here invoking humour as a higher weapon than violent action, albeit by problematically reasserting the cliché of woman’s silliness.

39The theme of the suffragette and the policeman was a favourite trope of anti-Suffrage humour (Tickner 203). But if the suffragettes’ violent actions certainly had a potential for comedy, they also had a power to shock, and in the novel, even gentlemen may differ on how such scenes are to be perceived. When the superficial, ‘ineffectual’ Farnborough opines of ‘a woman in a scrimmage’ that ‘She’s just funny, don’t you know’, the usually urbane Borrodaile passionately disagrees:

‘I don’t agree with you about the fun . . . I should say there was almost nothing more degrading than this public spectacle of—’ Borrodaile lifted his high shoulders higher still, with an effect of intense discomfort. ‘It never but once came my way that I remember, but I’m free to own’, he said, ‘there’s nothing that shakes my nerves like seeing a woman struggling and kicking in a policeman’s arms’.
But Farnborough was not to be dissuaded from seeing humour in the situation.
‘They say they swept up a peck of hairpins after the battle!’ (C 59)

40While Borrodaile explains his ‘shaken’ nerves by the fact that the spectacle is ‘degrading’ (to whom? we might ask), his trouble seems to indicate that he feels he has witnessed an act of sexual aggression. Borrodaile is anticipating by eight years the famous photograph of Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested outside Buckingham Palace in May 1914, in which her struggle in a policeman’s arms contains not only farcical potential, but also sombre resonances.

Fig 1: Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women’s Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914

Fig 1: Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women’s Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914

Source : Wikimedia Commons.

41Elaine Showalter remarks that Robins’s novel was one of the first to openly engage with the darkly sexual dimension of women’s abuse (Showalter 222–23; C 238), and it is men’s behaviour that is responsible for ‘Sex-Antagonism’, says Vida, not what Lady John calls ‘this ferment of feminism’ and ‘those women agitators’ (C 238, 239). The hairpins, hat pins and umbrellas which form the props of the burlesque fight between the strong woman and the policeman also belong to a grim world in which women needed to fend for themselves with improvised weaponry (Godfrey 80–81).

42In the period before what became known as ‘suffrage outrage’, Elizabeth Robins uses the demonstration scenes to depict women speakers mocking the scoffers and fighting back. Caught in the dilemma of depicting ‘women who are fighting for female suffrage’ as ‘actually reluctant to fight’ (Godfrey 79), Robins endows many women characters, across classes, with the gift of words, in particular with comical effect. The call-and-response between the public speakers and their audience resembles a battle of wits. At a time when crowds were seen as a threat, with a potential for unruliness verging on chaos, a sense of power emanates from the women’s repartee and verbal jousting with men. As we become immersed in an audience made up of loafers, hooligans, policemen, working men, progressive women, antagonists and tramps, we witness the way the female speakers keep their listeners under control. The policemen present do not have to intervene, for the suffragists can control the hecklers. When told to ‘go home and darn [her] ol’ man’s stockins’, a working-class female speaker retorts: ‘But wot’s politics! . . . It’s just ’ousekeepin’ on a big scyle . . . The Poor Law and the ’ole government is just in the syme muddle because the men ’ave tried to do the national ’ousekeeping’ without the women’. The listeners ‘relish’ her attacks and ‘give her credit for a bull’s eye’ when deserved (C 246). The speeches become battles of words, where laughter is a scratch and ridicule a wound. The crowd’s taunting acts like a stimulant for the suffragettes’ powerful rhetoric (C 202). Ernestine Blunt excels at ignoring the sniggerers and using her wits against the hecklers when it suits her. She ‘exercis[es] her hold over the meeting’ (C 177). She is said to have been modelled on Teresa Billington-Greig (John 202) or on Christabel Pankhurst (Stowell 29), but a character compares her to ‘the girl in Ibsen’s “Master Builder”’ (C 252), which brings her close to Elizabeth Robins who produced the play in London in 1893 and performed the role of Hilda with great success (John 95-97). Like Vida, Hilda uses her past to exact a debt from the Master Builder.

43In Ernestine’s view, open laughter is ‘a guide’ (C 205) which brings to the open the misconceptions and injustices hidden behind conventional behaviour, such as ‘chivalry’. Loud laughter is a sign that direct confrontation is close: ‘“When we got to the place where we were a public laughing-stock we knew we were getting on.” The audience screamed. “We began to feel encouraged!” A very hurricane swept the crowd’ (C 112). The verbal exchanges occasionally appear almost utopian, but the practice of female humour is also described in words denoting danger and chaos. However, the novel does send a message about the merits of subversive humour and women’s capacity for critical distance. In the words of a male observer, a woman who has ‘a sense of proportion’, the ‘mental suppleness that is capable of an ironic view’, with ‘an eye that can look right as well as left’ (C 143) deserves the respect due to the ironist.

44One major effect of the meetings is indeed to involve the ‘Dear Ironist’ in the cause. During the third suffrage meeting, Vida’s former lover who betrayed her and his new conquest are surprised to see her standing up to speak. She is jeered by the crowd as the ‘dumb lady’ (C 262), but finally she is ‘[d]oin’ pretty well fur a dumb lady’ (C 265). During her high society outings, Vida has learnt to build on the men’s derisive humour and fight back: ‘Through Borrodaile’s laugh she persisted’, we are told, before her male listener comments that she has acquired the ‘truly martial spirit’ (C 184). Vida’s political education has not only been made by her attendance of suffrage meetings. Her wits and convictions have also been put to the test by the derisive spirit of the anti-suffrage people in her own sphere. This experience helped turn the New Woman into a suffragette.

45Militant humour helps build a distance with the risks involved in political activism. The ‘Suffrage precipice’ mentioned above takes up a clichéd representation of suffrage extension; it can also evoke the fall of man from his long-established dominance and woman’s descent from her moral pedestal after the enfranchisement of women, but it also gestures to the actual risks involved in political activism. In a later American suffrage novel entitled The Precipice (1914), Elia Wilkinson Peattie has her New Woman heroine read her declaration of independence from the top of a cliff, because ‘being an independent woman is like standing on the edge’ (quoted by Geçgil 393). From the standpoint of 1914, the metaphor of the precipice had taken on new, critical resonances.

  • 10 See appendix 3 in Angela John (333–34).

46In 1908, Elizabeth Robins became the President of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, while pursuing her career as an actress. Votes for Women and The Convert were the first of a very long series of publications by her on Suffrage.10 The novel remains pleasurable reading today. It undermines the idea that women, and especially feminists, lack a sense of humour. There is nothing inherently unfeminine in comicalness. When a heckler raises the traditional objection ‘Where’s their Beethoven? Where’s their Plato? Where’s the woman Shakespeare?’ a working-class listener asks ‘Where’s their Harry Lauder?’ (C 265) The Scottish humourist was then at the beginning of his career in music hall, but was already famous with working-class audiences. The reference is missed by the upper-class listeners, whose culture does not extend to this sparkling performer. “‘Who is Harry Lauder?’ Jean asked her aunt. Lady John shook her head’ (C 265). The quip creates a form of solidarity between the cause of women and that of the working-class, and places the ladies outside the sphere of understanding altogether, as if they were not even needed. Humour both excludes and creates new solidarities. This holds true for the empathy (for the ridiculed) and the support (for the witty) created outside the fictional world: humour helps establish a metaleptic bridge which is conducive to political transformations.

47Comedy, and in particular shock tactics, has remained a female political strategy. The Convert explores popular prejudices about women’s relation to comedy, and uses witty exchanges to create a sense of women’s power for change. Since its publication, many militant women have insisted on humour’s potential as a non-violent medium for change. Campaigning in the manner of the ‘champion shockers’ that the suffragettes went on to become, the Guerrilla Girls say in their online video Not Ready to Make Nice: ‘We discovered early on that, if you could make someone who disagreed with you laugh, then you had a hook inside their brain. You know, once you’re in there, you might just be able to change their minds about things’.

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1 Letter of January 19th 1907 to her sister-in-law Margaret Dreier Robins (quoted by Gates 160). She also described the play in a letter to Millicent Fawcett as ‘the first thing I shall have written under the pressure of a strong moral conviction’ (quoted by Gates 154).

2 Angela V. John mentions 10 matinées and 13 evening performances. The play was also given in New York and Rome in 1909. A quarter of her fees were given to the two suffrage societies (John 206).

3 Punch (26 May 1894) (quoted by Marks 252).

4 Subsequent references to The Convert will appear as follows: (C x)

5 Authors of New Woman novels were caught in the same difficulty, as they often found that they had to protect their public image.

6 The public addressed by the suffragettes during their meetings was composed of ‘strangers’, in the terminology used by Michael Warner: ‘A public sets its boundaries and its organization by its own discourse rather than by external frameworks only if it openly addresses people who are identified primarily through their participation in the discourse and who therefore cannot be known in advance’ (56). Some members of this ‘counterpublic’ took sides in the cause, some came out of curiosity or to be entertained, and some may just have happened to be around. Robins plays on the mixed nature of this counterpublic with great effect, and she may have hoped that her own novel was going to reach a similar variety of ‘strangers’.

7 ‘The accusation of sexlessness brought against the curled darlings of society by these hard-working, hard-hitting sisters of theirs was not the least ironic thing in the situation’ (C 161).

8 ‘Woman may be pardoned for wondering if it may not have been in part her humaner instinct about some of the stock jokes of the race that earned her the reputation of a constitutional lack of humour’. (Robins 1913, 9)

9 The heroine of Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus (1894) has children of her own, but chooses to adopt a girl. The Canadian suffragette Mary Richardson (1882–1961), who was famous for slashing Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus with a meat chopper in 1914, adopted a baby boy in 1930.

10 See appendix 3 in Angela John (333–34).

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Titre Fig 1: Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women’s Suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914
Crédits Source : Wikimedia Commons.
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Nathalie Saudo-Welby, « ‘Woman Suffrage Precipice’: The Gender Politics of Laughter in Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert (1907) »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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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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