*An Essay on Comedy, by George Meredith
An Essay on Comedy
by George Meredith, given as a lecture, 1877; published separately, 1897
George Meredith (1828–1909) first presented what was to be known as the “Essay on Comedy” as a lecture to the London Institution on 1 February 1877. It was his first and only public lecture. In April of that year, the essay was published under the title “On the Idea of Comedy, and of the Uses of the Comic Spirit” in the New Quarterly Magazine. Its first separate publication took place in 1897, in a book titled An Essay on Comedy, and the Uses of the Comic Spirit.
Although Meredith was primarily known as a novelist and poet, he also worked as a journalist, especially in the early years of his career, contributing to the Westminster Review, the Pall Mall Gazette, the Graphic, and the Fortnightly Review, which he also edited for a brief period (November 1867-January 1868). Meredith served as a war correspondent for the Morning Post during the conflict between Italy and Austria in 1866, and, despite his liberal views, he also wrote for the conservative Ipswich Journal from 1858 to 1868. Within this wide range of journalistic prose, the Essay stands out as Meredith’s most significant periodical contribution and his best-known nonfiction prose work. However, the Essay is more closely linked, both stylistically and thematically, to Meredith’s fiction and poetry. Many of the ideas about comedy that he develops in the Essay are put into practice in his short fiction, also published in the New Quarterly Magazine (“The House on the Beach,” 1877; “The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper,” 1877; “The Tale of Chloe,” 1879), and in his most famous novel, The Egoist (1879).
In the Essay, Meredith defines “comedy” primarily by its rarity in British and continental literature, accounting for this absence in part by explaining that comedy demands a particular sociocultural setting. Meredith’s ideal comedy is intellectual; it is “the humour of the mind,” and therefore requires a society “wherein ideas are current and the perceptions quick.” For him, the “thoughtful laughter” of comedy was to serve as a corrective to the “Unreason and Sentimentalism” that permeated British society; its goal was to create a more rational, balanced, and progressive culture while avoiding the emotionally loaded extremes of satire (which Meredith views as meanspirited) and of conciliatory humor. His emphasis on cultural reform provides a link between the Essay and the similarly inspired writings of Matthew Arnold (whose Culture and Anarchy appeared in 1869) and Walter Pater.
If English society, “possessed of wealth and leisure, with many whims, many strange ailments and strange doctors,” was greatly in need of comedy, Meredith believed that the British were likely to be receptive to it, both because Britain’s large middle class provided an appropriate audience, and because, in his view, British women enjoyed a relatively high degree of social freedom. Early in the Essay Meredith stipulates that comedy cannot exist in cultures where one finds a “state of marked social inequality of the sexes.” Much critical attention has been paid to his attempt to link comedy with the status of women, and to promote comedy as a tool for women’s advancement. Meredith’s concern for women manifests itself in the Essay’s frequent references to the condition of women in various cultures throughout history, in its insistence that women should “recognise that the Comic Muse is one of their best friends,” and in various rhetorical strategies, such as his tendency to refer to female comic characters and personifications.
His favorite heroines, Molière’s Célimène and Congreve’s Millamant, are praised for their wit, intelligence, and verbal agility, traits that also characterize Meredith’s own heroines, most notably Diana Warwick of Diana of the Crossways (1885).
Meredith’s prose writing is notoriously idiosyncratic, and the Essay, while more readable than many of his novels, is no exception. The difficulty of his sometimes confusing syntax and opaque diction is compounded by the essay’s loose overall structure and his wide-ranging references to ancient dramatists as well as to contemporary British and continental writers. The didactic tone of the Essay bears witness to its origin as a lecture, as well as to his primary stylistic influence, Thomas Carlyle, with whom Meredith shared a belief in the value of work and in the healing power of laughter.
Although Meredith’s literary influence has lessened considerably in the 20th century, the impact of the Essay can be traced in writers as diverse as Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf. As the most extensive discussion of the comic genre produced in the 19th century, the Essay remains frequently cited in studies of British comedy and in discussions of the role of women in comedy.
An Essay on Comedy, and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, 1897; edited by Lane Cooper, 1918, reprinted 1972, and Maura Ives, 1997
Beer, Gillian, Meredith: A Change of Masks: A Study of the Novels, London: Athlone Press, 1970
Carlson, Susan, Women and Comedy: Rewriting the British Theatrical Tradition, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991
Henkle, Roger B., Comedy and Culture: England, 1820–1900, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980
McWhirter, David, “Feminism/Gender/Comedy: Meredith, Woolf, and the
Reconfiguration of Comic Distance,” in Look Who’s Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Langhorne, Pennsylvania: Gordon and Breach, 1994:189–204
Martin, Robert Bernard, The Triumph of Wit: A Study of Victorian Comic Theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974
Moses, Joseph, The Novelist as Comedian: George Meredith and the Ironic Sensibility, New York: Schocken, 1983
Polhemus, Robert, Comic Faith: The Great Tradition from Austen to Joyce, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980
Stevenson, Lionel, The Ordeal of George Meredith, New York: Scribner, 1953; London: Owen, 1954
Stevenson, Lionel, “Carlyle and Meredith,” in Carlyle and His Contemporaries, edited by John Clubbe, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1976:257–79
Wilt, Judith, The Readable People of George Meredith, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975
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