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Title: Despotic mirth : laughter, gender and power in the novels of Charlotte Brontë
Authors: Briggs, Harriet Mary
Issue Date: 2015
Publisher: Newcastle University
Abstract: This thesis contends that while Charlotte Brontë’s novels are not typically associated with humour, they are nonetheless centrally concerned with the politics of laughter. I investigate Brontë’s serious and sustained use of laughter imagery to challenge cultural constructions of femininity and subvert the gendering of rationality and emotion. In doing so I highlight how laughter’s capacity to tyrannise or marginalise underpins her disquiet about men’s abuse of power, and shapes her concern with the experience of the social outsider. Situating historical theories of humour and satire alongside those of physiognomy, physiology and mental health, my research revises current ideas both about the significance of laughter in the nineteenth-century imagination and about Brontë’s methods of characterisation. While showing how laughter features as a source of oppression throughout her writing, I also argue that she makes radically apparent its expressive power, deploying laughing and smiling faces to dispute or destabilise constraining gender ideals. Chapter One attends to cultural context circa 1830-60, providing analysis of laughter in periodicals, in philosophy and in pseudo/scientific thought, and discussing Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray in particular detail, in order to position Brontë in relation to these influential writers. Chapter Two traces the transition from despotic to empowering laughter between Brontë’s early writings and Jane Eyre, Chapter Three examines the psychology of facial expression in The Professor, and Chapter Four locates Brontë’s ultimate rejection of contemporary norms and expectations in the changing face of laughter between Shirley and Villette. I conclude by considering the wider cultural significance of Brontë’s marked ambivalence towards laughter at a time when, despite our conventional impression of the Victorian era as earnest and unamused, attitudes to laughter were emphatically celebratory rather than sceptical.
Description: PhD
Appears in Collections:School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics

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