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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Talking with the Dead: Sarah Fielding's Posthumous Lives as a Feminist Challenge to Menippean Laughter

  • Author(s): Goodhue, Elizabeth K.
  • et al.

“The thing about biography,” he said, “is that you always know how the story ends.” This remark was made by a noted professor of eighteenth-century literature during the annual lecture at the 2009 meeting of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS). What struck me most about the comment on that chilly January afternoon was not the offhand tone in which it was voiced, but the awkward chuckles that rippled through the audience afterwards, prompting a smile—half sheepish, half relieved—from our speaker. Death was not mentioned, but it was clearly the specter giving rise to these signs of wary amusement. I couldn’t help but wonder if the audience’s hesitancy to laugh outright—my own included—stemmed from the fact that a joke about death’s ability to render all biographies the same brought mortality uncomfortably close to the here and now that we shared as conference participants.

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