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
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