Austen in August Challenge – Funniest Moment in Jane Austen

One of the weirdest trends in misogyny is an insistence that women cannot be funny. It’s not even a new thing as a contemporary critic of Austen’s described women’s humour as resembling ‘snakes in Iceland’. E.g. non-existent. In general it is more accurate to say that women’s humour can pass over the heads of males too block-headed to understand. Austen’s humour can be subtle and often packs a sting in its tail, her one-liners pass by without fanfare so that the reader catches up slightly late with an ‘Oh’ and a laugh. I think that at some point I will have to transfer this challenge prompt into a Top Ten as narrowing down to just one moment was far from easy.

How Tall is Harry Dashwood? Sense and Sensibility

Harry Dashwood

When the ladies withdrew to the drawing-room after dinner, […] one subject only engaged the ladies till coffee came in, which was the comparative heights of Harry Dashwood, and Lady Middleton’s second son William, who were nearly of the same age. Had both the children been there, the affair might have been determined too easily by measuring them at once; but as Harry only was present, it was all conjectural assertion on both sides; and everybody had a right to be equally positive in their opinion, and to repeat it over and over again as often as they liked.

Austen’s humour is so fiercely observant and I was in stitches over the way in which each of the ladies’ personality is revealed by their response to this vexing question. Both Fanny Dashwood and Lady Middleton repeatedly say that the other one’s child is the taller, by way of politeness. Their respective mothers each insist that their own grandson is taller. Lucy Steele, the toadie who wishes to suck up to both sides, says that they are both admirably tall boys for their age. Elinor remarks on the one she thinks to actually be taller and Marianne tuts that she does not care.

I confess that I pick this one as it has less of the cringe factor that goes with so much of the comedy around Mr Collins or Catherine Morland. It also has less of the cruelty of the line about Richard Musgrove only ever living up to the abbreviation of his name. I would probably also name Emma as the most consistently funny Austen novel but there’s something about this moment in particular that for me is pure gold.

For my whole Austen in August Fan Challenge – see here

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3 thoughts on “Austen in August Challenge – Funniest Moment in Jane Austen

  1. This is a very funny part! There are two other moments in Sense and Sensibility that I also love. Robert Ferrars’s lengthy and nonsensical monologue on the joys of cottage living, followed by Elinor’s response:
    “Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”

    And then, that scene in London when Lucy Steele, Edward Ferrars, Marianne and Elinor are all the same room. Elinor knows about Lucy’s secret engagement to Edward; Lucy knows that Elinor knows (since she told her!); Edward knows this is all very awkward; Marianne does not know any of it, is oblivious to the tension in the room. She’s trying to put aside her own sorrow about being jilted to welcome Edward, whom she truly likes and believes loves Elinor. And she just keeps making everything worse:

    Perhaps, Miss Marianne,” cried Lucy, eager to take some revenge on her, “you think young men never stand upon engagements, if they have no mind to keep them, little as well as great.”

    Elinor was very angry, but Marianne seemed entirely insensible of the sting; for she calmly replied,

    “Not so, indeed; for, seriously speaking, I am very sure that conscience only kept Edward from Harley Street. And I really believe he HAS the most delicate conscience in the world; the most scrupulous in performing every engagement, however minute, and however it may make against his interest or pleasure. He is the most fearful of giving pain, of wounding expectation, and the most incapable of being selfish, of any body I ever saw. Edward, it is so, and I will say it. What! are you never to hear yourself praised!—Then you must be no friend of mine; for those who will accept of my love and esteem, must submit to my open commendation.”

    The nature of her commendation, in the present case, however, happened to be particularly ill-suited to the feelings of two thirds of her auditors, and was so very unexhilarating to Edward, that he very soon got up to go away.

    1. You know your stuff! Excellent quoting! Sense and Sensibility is SO under-rated among the novels but I think it’s absolutely brilliant! The characters spend so much time among people they don’t really like that there’s some fantastically barbed wit.
      Thank you for sharing 🙂

  2. I seem to be stuck in Persuasion here, but Sir Walter Eliot is hilarious in his vanity and in the remarks that he makes, judging everyone according to his very particular slide rule of good looks, eg suggesting that Admiral Croft’s looks would be “tolerable” if his man could have the arranging of his hair. Mary’s self-centred histrionics are also comic, and the prostration of the Eliots before Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret is played for laughs – actually the whole social set-up in Bath is ripped to shreds. Great stuff.

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