The witty woman in nineteenth century English comic fiction
Jane Austen was the first English novelist to see the witty woman as a central figure in comedy. In this she draws from a tradition that had been inaugurated in English drama by Shakespeare. The figure had assumed a related though somewhat different manifestation in the vastly different theatrical conditions that produced Restoration Drama. . This tradition is resumed and introduced into the novel by Jane Austen, who corrects in doing so, some of the changed attitudes to wit in women engendered by the amiable and sentimental traditions of the eighteenth century, both in the novel and in drama. Having established some issues in the tradition of the witty woman in Jane Austen, I then discuss those issues with reference to two other novelists in the nineteenth century to examine the transmutation of this tradition through a century of change. Thackeray's Becky Sharp and Meredith's Clara Middleton and Diana Warwick are also crucial, as witty women, to the comic content of the hovels in which they appear. The tradition revolves around a female figure of liveliness, vivacity and charm. She is outspoken and critical, and concerned to proclaim her independence. She is shrewd in her assessment of men, and a critic of convention rather than victim to it. She possesses thus the capacity to be the focal point of a comic social order that functions as critic, if not corrective, by representing an alternative order to the outside world; She is engaged in a dialectic of wit most often with her male counterparts, and by this means sexual differentiation within the comedy becomes less significant than intellectual differentiation. The attitude of her creator towards a woman who is witty in the above sense, is well illustrated by her role in the action of the comedies. For where her wit is presented as a moral virtue, it is an avenue to her complete maturity, instead of an obstacle to it. Of the latter case, v/e have two examples in this thesis - Jane Austen's Mary Crawford and Thackeray's Becky Sharp. Becky, in her aspect as social climber becomes both a comment on her society and an example of the flexibility inherent in the figure of the witty woman in the 1840s. As a late century exploration of. the figure in comedy we have examples in George Meredith. Clara Middleton in The Egoist exemplifies the connection between the comic Muse and the witty woman. Diana in Diana of the Crossways is both an interesting portrayal of the type in comedy of manners, and symptomatic, in her aspects as 'New Woman', of the tensions in comedy of the 1880s.