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Appel à contributions/Call for Papers n96

Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens: CFP The New Woman and Humour

In late Victorian satirical magazines, comedies and conversation, the New Woman was an inexhaustible source of fun. For the opponents of women’s emancipation, ridicule 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 and inviting their readers to take their demands seriously.

Hence, the woman’s rights woman was constantly criticized for her total absence of humour. “For the New Woman there is no such thing as a joke”, Ouida wrote in 1894. A year later, Hugh Stutfield commented in his antifeminist essay “Tommyrotics” that there was “no place left for humour” in New Woman novels: her fiction was spoiled by excessive realism, ponderous didacticism and a tendency to take things much too seriously.

As a target of satire and a comic victim, the New Woman quickly learnt how to put humour to her own use. By being funny, she made herself more pleasant to male readers and more tolerant of them. Ella Hepworth Dixon’s My Flirtations (1892), originally published anonymously in the Lady’s Pictorial, was considered by the Saturday Review as “one of the most amusing books we have come across for a long time” (qtd in Fehlbaum 189). Even in her more pessimistic The Story of a Modern Woman (1894), Dixon’s emancipated female protagonist maintains that a sense of humour is “what women ought to cultivate above all things” (Dixon 45). In the New Woman’s satires of patriarchal thinking and male self-sufficiency, wit does have an instructive, “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. Irony, parody and comical reversals, in fiction and non-fiction alike, were among what Ann Heilmann has described as the New Woman’s “indirect strategies”.

In the twentieth century, the suffragettes’ methods were regularly described in the press as hysterical and not worth serious consideration. However, if we are to believe the American actress and feminist writer Elizabeth Robins, by the time the suffragists hardened 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 (1909), the suffragettes’ public demonstrations are considered “excellent Sunday entertainment”. “[R]idicule crumples a man up”, their sharp-witted public speaker exclaims, “It steels a woman. We’ve educated ourselves so that we welcome ridicule” (II, 1). Negotiating laughter has become integrated into the New Woman’s political apprenticeship.

Going counter to the perception of the New Woman’s humorlessness, this collection of essays will examine the rich and contradictory ways in which laughter, jokes, satire and comedy were deployed and reconfigured by New Women around the English-speaking world. It will engage with the political uses of humour, as it creates and invites distance. It will consider humorous practises as a source of empowerment: the use of comedy to destabilize power relations and to create a sense of shared enjoyment, community, and sisterhood. How did humour become integrated into feminist rhetorical practices? To what extent is it possible to speak of feminist humour?

While we will consider proposals on the New Woman as a target of satire, we would like to focus more specifically on her own capacity to respond to humour, to take a humorous distance and use laughter to her own ends. We invite contributions on the politics and poetics of humour and the use of irony. We will consider essays on the New Woman in the Victorian press, the visual arts, fiction, poetry and drama, as well as in autobiographies, memoirs and correspondence. We also welcome papers on Neo-Victorian rewritings of New Woman fiction in novels or graphic novels.

The essays will be published in Spring 2022 in the double-blind, peer-reviewed, open-edition French journal of Victorian studies Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens (https://journals.openedition.org/cve/5046)

Please send proposals (300 words) with a short biographical note by October 30, 2020 to Catherine Delyfer (catherine.delyfer[at]univ-tlse2.fr) and Nathalie Saudo-Welby (nsaudo[at]hotmail.com). Notifications of acceptance will be sent by November 30, 2020. Full articles will be due by June 1st, 2021.

Selective Bibliography

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

Blanch, Sophie. “Women and Comedy” in Joannou, M. ed. The History of British Women’s Writing 1920–1945, Palgrave Macmillan 2013, p. 112–128.

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

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

Fehlbaum, Valerie. “Ella Heptworth Dixon’s My Flirtations: The New Woman and the Marriage Market.” Victorian Review 44.2 (2018): 189–192. 

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

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

Horlacher, Stefan. “A Short Introduction to Theories of Humour, the Comic, and Laughter”, Gender and Laughter (2009): 17–47.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise and Gutleben, Christian. Neo-Victorian Humour: Comic Subversions and Unlaughter in Contemporary Historical Revisions. Amsterdam: Brill Rodopi, 2017.

Kranidis, Rita S. Subversive Discourse: The Cultural Production of Late Victorian Feminist Novels. New-York: St Martin’s, 1995.

Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the fin de siècle. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997.

Little, Judy. Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark and Feminism. Lincoln/London: U of Nebraska Press.

Mangum, Teresa. Married, Middlebrow, and Militant: Sarah Grand and the New Woman Novel. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1998.

Marks, Patricia. Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1990.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Londres: Women’s Press, 1978.

Stetz, Margaret Dina. British Women’s Comic Fiction 1890–1990. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

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