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Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen.

Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth,
and Jane Austen. By Audrey Bilger. (Humor in Life and Letters) Detroit, MI:
Wayne State University Press. 1998. 261 pp. $39.95.


In Laughing Feminism, Audrey Bilger argues that Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen used humour to challenge women's subordinate position by exposing the irrationality of patriarchal discourse. Analysing the three writers' fiction in the context of contemporary feminist writings and conduct books, Bilger presents a persuasive case for their feminist sympathies. But she is less convincing when linking these sympathies to their humour.

Bilger devotes an early chapter of her book to Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman in order to establish a benchmark for eighteenth-century feminism to which she subsequently compares the fiction of Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen. In the chapters that follow, Bilger demonstrates that, like Wollstonecraft, the three novelists criticize the feminine ideal described in conduct books, satirize the women who embrace these ideals, and expose the inadequacies of male authority figures.

For Bilger, Enlightenment rationality is central to the three writers' humorous attacks on male dominance. Distinguishing them from novelists who 'romanticiz[ed] women's oppression', Bilger argues that by 'mocking the follies of characters who uphold sexist points of view, Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen display the same faith as Wollstonecraft in people's ability to make more rational choices' (p. 53). At times, I felt Bilger's analysis would have been sharper had she been more sceptical about the usefulness of Enlightenment discourse for feminism. For instance, Bilger compares Wollstonecraft's Vindication to the work of Helene Cixous, suggesting that both use laughter as a means of subverting patriarchal institutions. However, she fails to note that Cixous is writing precisely against the rationality that is so central to Wollstonecraft's feminism. A more critical attitude towards the Enlightenment would have been especially useful in the book's final chapter, 'Goblin Laughter', which focuses mainly on violent humour in Burney's works. The violence in Burney's novels seems often to suggest the inadequacy of Enlightenment rationality to effect social reform.

Moreover, Bilger sometimes overstates the connection between Wollstonecraft's satire in Vindication and the comedy in the novels of Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen. She claims that 'Wollstonecraft's Vindication provides an example of how feminist humor can engage with and undermine the authority of patriarchal discourse' (p. 52), but most readers would not classify that work as humour. Although she remarks elsewhere that comedy is a way of masking aggressive impulses, Bilger makes little of the contrast between Wollstonecraft's straightforward criticism of patriarchal culture and the veiled attacks of Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen. Greater attention to this difference would have produced a more nuanced discussion and evaluation of different kinds of feminist resistance.

In fact, there were moments in Laughing Feminism when I found the link between feminism and comedy strained. It is true that these writers often use humour to expose the pretensions of overbearing fathers and simpering women. Sometimes, however, their humour seems at odds with any moral or political intent. This is clear in Austen's treatment of Mr Bennet. The novel is, as Bilger notes, critical of his lapses as an authority figure. But Austen does not use humour to expose Mr Bennet's faults. In fact, he is initially an attractive character, in part, because of his witty criticisms of Mrs Bennet. The reader has to see past Mr Bennet's wit to understand his defects. As this example suggests, humour is not always a reliable moral arbiter in the work of these novelists. Although Laughing Feminism is useful in setting out the feminist context for Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen's fiction, the connections Bilger draws between feminism and humour are not as finely delineated as they might be.
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Author:Montague, Ashley
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:616
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