Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures



First Advisor

Rebecca Stern


The 1800 Act of Union incorporating Ireland into Great Britain changed what it meant to be a citizen of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Authors responded to this shifting sense of nationality by putting forth new models of conduct in an effort to determine how citizens should act as representatives of the United Kingdom and as administrators for the British Empire. Humor helped to establish these behavioral standards. It not only exposed inappropriate actions but also provided an opportunity for artists to present positive criteria for proper British behavior. While many critics focus on how humor simply reflects a society's attitudes, my project illustrates how laughter produces those attitudes.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen attempted to define Britishness within an empire that was still establishing itself. The values and behaviors they chose to promote stemmed from a need to create a sense of a united Britain. Moreover, they were invested in demonstrating how Britons should use their imperial power suitably, so both present ideal standards for readers to emulate.

By mid-century, the Empire was a fully operational force. Writers like William Makepeace Thackeray didn't need to invent a new national identity. Instead, they used humor to adapt what had become conventional British attitudes and behaviors to reflect Britain's new status as a world power. Yet, as the century progressed and the Empire became increasingly diverse, authors and illustrators focused more on trying to reassure rather than to reform. Novelists became less willing to provide clear behavioral models for readers to follow; therefore, comic illustrators filled in the gap. But, they too became less instructive: rather than showing how Britons could better themselves and administer their imperial power, late-Victorian artists aimed their humor at helping readers to manage their anxiety as the Empire crumbled.

Investigating how humor produces attitudes and behaviors in Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent and Ennui, Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and comic strips in Funny Folks, Comic Cuts, and Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, my project traces how writers and artists worked to construct Britishness throughout the nineteenth century.


© 2010, Jennifer L. Martinsen