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Sentiment and Laughter: Caricature in the Novel, 1740-1840


This dissertation examines how late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British novelists—major authors, Laurence Sterne and Jane Austen, and lesser-known writers, Pierce Egan, Charles Jenner, and Alexander Bicknell—challenged Henry Fielding’s mid-eighteenth-century critique of caricature as unrealistic and un-novelistic. In this study, I argue that Sterne, Austen, Egan, and others translated visual tropes of caricature into literary form in order to make their comic writings appear more "realistic." In doing so, these authors not only bridged the character-caricature divide, but a visual-verbal divide as well. As I demonstrate, the desire to connect caricature with character, and the visual with the verbal, grew out of larger ethical and aesthetic concerns regarding the relationship between laughter, sensibility, and novelistic form.

This study begins with Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742) and its antagonistic stance towards caricature and the laughter it evokes, a laughter that both Fielding and William Hogarth portray as detrimental to the knowledge of character and sensibility. My second chapter looks at how, increasingly, in the late eighteenth century tears and laughter were integrated into the sentimental experience. Sterne's readers wept sentimental tears for Tristram Shandy's (1759-1767) heartbroken Maria, but they also sought "delicate laughter" in the verbal and visual caricature of Dr. Slop. In the third chapter, I explore how Jane Austen's Persuasion (1818) mocks Sternean sensibility and its problematic idealization of fragile, female bodies by adapting tropes of visual caricature into literary form. The fourth chapter examines Pierce Egan's Life in London (1821), rarely read today, but hugely popular in the 1820s. Egan's protagonists are "men of feeling" who thrive on the thrills of "real life," which in the novel is best exemplified by caricature. The novelist follows in the comic realist tradition of Fielding, but embraces Sternean sensibility and its enthusiasm for caricature. Egan sees caricature and sensibility as interconnected, rather than opposed.

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