Monday, May 01, 2006


I gave my long-dreaded presentation on "Humor in Jane Austen" at the Jane Austen Society of North America (or JASNA) Tea yesterday afternoon, and it went over far better than I had cause to hope. There's a branch here in Nashville; about 2 dozen ladies who get together quarterly for a presentation on some JA-related subject and a whopping big tea party.

We sit around and stuff our faces with shortbread and cake and drink really GOOD tea, and talk about the latest Jane Austen movie or miniseries, and "has anyone heard of a new version of P&P or S&S," etc., and one brave soul makes a presentation to the group. Very nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Well, in my never-ending Quest for Attention, when they asked me about 6 months ago if I would do a presentation on Humor in Jane Austen, I said yes, and then regretted it for weeks on end. I'm just so lazy, you see. I don't like being required to do homework, although I'm certainly confident in addressing a group, or talking about stuff I know well.

So I folded my open acknowledgement of my vanity and laziness into the presentation, which I think helped a lot since my scholarship was very foggy - I shamelessly plagiarized from Wikipedia and other on-line papers and sites, which I have no real compunction about since I will never allow it to be published or made available to the general public... my words have melted into the Ether. Here's the introductory bits that I am most proud of:

When I was first asked if I would be willing to take on the subject of “Humor in Jane Austen” as a presentation, in my weaker moments I would think things like “why don’t you just ask me to do a presentation on ‘Nouns in Jane Austen,’ or ‘Use of the letter W in Jane Austen’? In other words, it seems an almost impossibly huge task, much like being asked to index the Old Testament. And I am an exceptionally lazy person, which makes it even more difficult to contemplate.

I should mention that it has been a habit for me that if I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, I will think about Jane Austen stories, because I find it very soothing and far-removed from the worries of my life. But since developing this presentation has become one of my worries, that doesn’t exactly work right now!

So I started dabbling in research, and there’s a lot of it about, to say the least. There are books about books about Jane Austen’s humor, and all the permutations thereof – sarcasm, irony, wit, satire, vocabulary, feminism, juvenilia, the joke of substitution, the comic negative, etc. etc. etc. But one of the main difficulties of discussing comedy in a scholarly manner is analyzing just how exactly a phrase, a sentence, or joke actually IS funny – it’s taking a very subjective, individualized style of expression, and attempting to confine it to a comprehensible definition, and I find it unbelievably boring. If you explain how something is comedic, it usually drains the funny out of it.

So I won’t exactly do that myself; I’ve decided to jump around and talk about the things in Austen that make me laugh, in no particular order, with just a few definitions and examples so it’s not a complete waste. In the slightly modified words of Jane Austen, “you deserve a [better presentation] than this, but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people so well as they deserve.” Or, in the more slightly mangled words of Lady Catherine, “There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of [humor] than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever [bothered to prepare a proper presentation], I should have been a great proficient.”

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