(Original image is here.)

So, as I’m in full-on dissertation-prospectus-avoidance mode, I thought it would be a good time to finally get around to checking out The New Adventures of Queen Victoria. The strip’s premise is that it traces the adventures of a clip-art Queen Victoria (and, as they say on Rocky & Bullwinkle, a host of others) as she attempts to navigate the modern world. I really, really want to like this strip. At the moment, there are a series of strips about Banned Books Week featuring a clipart Sarah Palin. I can see why the juxtaposition is inherently funny, but (for reasons largely related to growing up religious in the midwest) Sarah Palin scares me enough that I can’t really find her funny. But I do find myself wondering whether there’s more to the strip than just the inherent humor of a clipart Queen Victoria talking about the fall TV schedule with a clipart Queen Elizabeth I (“Liz” in the strip). Or maybe that’s enough? I’ll have to start reading it to see.

In the world of clipart Victorians, there’s also the Victorian Comics site, which I’m not sure is being updated regularly at the moment. (It’s hard to tell sometimes.) Some of these are pretty funny; one of them (I’m not saying which) has been the image on my computer desktop for a few months. Others I think seem to depend too much on the inherent humor of the juxtaposition, though.

For some reason, I don’t feel the same way about, the source of the above image. It’s not  just Victorian clipart, of course, but much of it is, and I find these mostly hilarious. The production qualities are great. The writing is almost always impeccable and slightly evil, which no doubt appeals to me on a number of levels. But it’s possible, too, that there’s something else going on there, something that goes beyond the inherent hilariousness and almost achieves the level of interpretation. As if the joke comes not from the incongruities (or just making fun of those crazy Victorians) of the text and image but from the plausibility of the captions as weirdly appropriate to the image. And in certain contexts, it’s almost, albeit barely, possible to imagine the joke actually succeeding for certain segments of a nineteenth century audience.

All of this has me musing on the relationship between what we find funny about the Victorians and what the Victorians found funny about themselves. On the one hand, I would venture to guess that most of the things that make me laugh or smile when reading Dickens or Austen or Thackeray are those that the authors more or less intended–even if there are obviously going to be places where the jokes misfire 150 years later or passages that are unintentionally hilarious. The same goes for something like the “Philosophy of Drinking” article I linked to in an earlier post–it’s obviously a light piece and is still funny. On the other hand, I don’t generally go to, say, the archives of Punch for a good nineteenth-century-style bellylaugh. These kinds of things are more texts to be read and deciphered with our historical knowledge of political and cultural meanings–seeing the humor in it is more an act of effort and excavation and of pulling back from our initial “WTF?” reaction. (This seems to me to be the kind of work we did with that image from the O’Malley book in the September reading group.)

That “WTF?” reaction is a strong one, though–and, to be honest, it probably motivates the plurality (if not the outright majority) of my moments of mirth in Victorian literature. It has made my other prospectus-avoidance activity–reading Coventry Patmore’s “The Angel In The House“–not only bearable but actively pleasurable. Yes, that’s right kids. I’m having fun reading “The Angel in the House.” And I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably not the kind of fun that Patmore intended. What keeps me reading is, more or less, a series of moments where I have to go back to what I just read and say to myself “OMG! Did he just mean to *say* that?” Which has made this a lot more interesting text than I’d been led to believe by the way that we tend to throw around the phrase as if we know what it means. It did not, for instance, prepare me for “Love at Large,” one of the preludes to Canto II:

Whene’er I come where ladies are,

How sad soever I was before,

Though like a ship frost-bound and far

Withheld in ice from the ocean’s roar,

Third-winter’d in that dreadful dock

With stiffen’d cordage, sails decay’d,

And crew that care for calm and shock

Alike, too dull to be dismay’d,

Yet if I come where ladies are,

How sad soever I was before,

Then is my sadness banish’d far,

And I am like the ship no more;

Or like the ship that if the ice-field splits,

Burst by the sudden polar Spring,

And all thank God with their warming wits,

And kiss each other and dance and sing,

And hoist fresh sails, that make the breeze

Blow them along the liquid sea,

Out of the North, where life did freeze,

Into the haven where they would be.

What starts out as a paean to the rejuvenating influence of (respectable) female company should *not* in the normal logic of things end up as sort of the musical version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” complete with homoeroticism that doesn’t really even need to be pointed out. And yet there you go. Maybe it’s too easy, in a way, to even bother to talk about it. But I’m also not sure if I want to dismiss it outright as sub-scholarly frivolity. I don’t, for instance, have any legitimate reason to think that Patmore himself thinks he’s being funny here or elsewhere in the text. And given the weight that the phrase “angel in the house” carried both in its time and in our own scholarly discourse (and see, of course, Virginia Woolf’s famous description of the female writer’s task as “killing the angel in the house“), I do wonder if we laugh at our peril. Are we at the point yet where we *can* laugh at this sort of thing, provided that we do so in a kind of Nietzschean way–a laughter out of the whole truth that is also laughing at ourselves? And what’s the status of a “we” that laughs at these kinds of Victorian moments? (I assume that everyone runs across some of these, no matter what field they’re in, but the Victorians seem especially open to this. I’m having trouble thinking of similar WTF? moments in Romanticism, for instance, except for something like Godwin’s memoir of Wollstonecraft, which is more tragic than funny.)

I suppose the broader question is about the place of laughter in our work and about the different positions that we take on when we do laugh. Laughing at, laughing with, laughing near. At least in my case, the laughing-at position has been seemingly productive, at least in the short term.

Now if only I could have this much to say about  my nascent dissertation….