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CFP – ‘We Are Amused’: Victorian Humour and the Digital

14 mai 2024 · 8h00 30 juin 2024 · 17h00

Lieu :

Caen campus 1 · MRSH · SH027, SH028 et amphi

‘We Are Amused’: Victorian Humour and the Digital

November 7-8 2024, Université Caen Normandie.

Confirmed keynote speakers :

Pr James Mussell, Professor of Nineteenth-Century Print Cultures, University of Leeds, UK.

Dr Bob Nicholson, Associate Head, History, Geography & Social Sciences, Edge Hill University, UK.

In his 2022 Michael Wolff Lecture entitled “Limits and Limitlessness: Miscellaneous Extraction in Nineteenth-Century Print,” Mark Turner remarked that “the digital age does not signal a break with earlier dynamics of print modernity. It represents the diffusion, extension and automation of logics, techniques and concepts that emerged across the nineteenth century” (Turner: “Limits”). Far from merely displaying scanned pages on a screen, digitization does indeed raise central questions about the rationale behind the decisions made by the authors, editors, publishers, proprietors, illustrators, engravers and readers who, throughout the nineteenth century, constructed, circulated and consumed the printed press. As they sit today on the shelves of libraries, as bound volumes or in the shape of microfilms, Victorian newspapers and periodicals testify to the immense variety of features, contents, types, illustrations and formats that resulted from such decisions. They also bear witness to the work of archivists who, since then, have decided to save a collection, or else to dispose of it, thereby broadening or narrowing the range of resources historians of the press can engage with today. As James Mussell puts it, “the archive is an interpretation in its own right and then every time people return to the archive and do things in it, every return leads to new ideas and new ways of conceiving the past” (Brake & Mussell: “Digital Nineteenth-Century Serials”). As yet another return to the archive, the creation of a new digital repository is thus a bibliographic process which, relying on a thorough analysis of the source material, inevitably transforms our perception, understanding and rendering of it.

Over the last thirty years or so, the range of Victorian newspapers and magazines available for data mining and content analysis has remarkably expanded. Impressive platforms like the Wellesley Index, Waterloo Directories, British Newspaper Archive, Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition, Illustration Archive, Yellow Nineties, Digital Victorian Periodical Poetry have fundamentally altered the way researchers approach the archive. It is however estimated that less than 1% of surviving nineteenth-century newspapers – themselves a fraction of printed papers – have been digitized (Brake & Mussell: ibid., Joshi: “Scissors-and-Paste”). Among the print genres covered by these repositories but still insufficiently available online is the multifarious, ebullient and highly entertaining nineteenth-century satirical press. As the most influential humorous title of the period, Punch was digitized in 2014 under the supervision of Clare Horrocks and Seth Cayley, in conjunction with Gale Cengage and the British Library. Today,the Curran Index provides listings and author attributions of 80,161Punch articles covering the period 1842-1900. But while the London Charivari remains to this day a household name for Victorian satire, the magazine was far from being the only entertaining publication on the market. Largely inherited from the Regency tradition of popular comic art, and fuelled by the exponential development of the pictorial press throughout the 1830s and 1840s, as Brian Maidment has convincingly documented, a new “middlebrow” consumer market for visual culture provided the early Victorian reading public with an abundance of comicalities (Maidment: 3). Every day, comic stories, songs and poetry brought a smile on the face of a public posterity has chiefly described as dour and repressed. As more recent Victorian historiography has shown, fun was omnipresent, on paper and in people’s lives. Jokes, Bob Nicholson has observed, “acted as a literal form of capital; a conversational currency that could be exchanged for a good evening of food and drink” (Nicholson: 123). They could be found in almost every kind of publication, but particularly flourished in “comic periodicals,” a print genre Donald Gray defined in one of his founding articles on the subject as a cheap illustrated weekly, with half-page caricatures and small punning cuts (Gray: 2). Of these playful publications, Gray lists no fewer than 200 for the whole nineteenth century, observing that many of them were issued during the middle decades, as Punch imitators. Among these titles, only a handful are freely available online. While The Tomahawk (1867-1870) can be viewed through the Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition, a free, online scholarly edition of six nineteenth-century periodicals and newspapers, other titles remain either behind paywalls (Bell’s Life in London, Figaro in London, Fun, Judy) or are still trapped in what Patrick Leary has famously called the “offline penumbra” (Will O’The Wisp, Moonshine and hundreds of others) (Leary: 82).

Jocularity also pervaded more transitory and elusive texts like pocketbooks, almanacs, diaries, posters and tickets, overwhelmingly absent from library shelves and computer screens because often dismissed as insignificant. Among such journalistic outgrowths was Punch’s Pocket Book (1843-1881), a “cheery little annual” launched by Bradbury & Evans to support the fledgling Punch (Burnand: 168). Inspired by the weekly magazine’s mixture of jokes and cartoons, it offered serious and trivial content, interspersed with black-and-white vignettes and ornaments. Its main selling point was a hand-coloured fold-out frontispiece offering amusing comment on a topical issue. Today selected for digitization through an international project scheduled to unfold over the next five years, Punch’s Pocket Book raises fundamental questions about the impact of the digital migration on our perception, understanding and transmission of Victorian humour, visual and verbal. How might we better catch and display such formats and contents? What sort of taxonomy will better counter the “tyranny of the keyword,” which, in the words of Harry G. Cocks and Matthew Rubery, will “parachute us in the middle of a print jungle and ignore the nature of the ecosystem”? (Cocks & Rubery: 1)

The object of this conference is to examine the point of intersection between nineteenth-century humour, under all its definitions and expressions, and the digital. In line with the ongoing Punch’s Pocket Book Archive project, which seeks to create a fully searchable open-access archive from a complete collection of Punch’s Pocket Book – some thirty-nine volumes representing approximately 5,000 pages– the conference will investigate the migration of jokes, squibs, spoofs and parodies, verbal and visual, from the pages of comic periodicals to 21st century screens, opening new lines of inquiry into the distinctiveness of computerized Victorian humour.

Possible topics to explore include, but are not limited to:

  • Caricature, parody and pastiche in print and/or online
  • Victorian ephemera, from the bin to the screen
  • Laughter as a force of social cohesion, then and now
  • Gendered humour
  • Image as vehicle of nineteenth-century comedy
  • Pictures and the “tyranny of the keyword”
  • Workers of the comic press (authors, editors, compositors, advertisers, artists, engravers, proprietors)
  • Reprinting, reformatting, reissuing comic content
  • Epistemologies of the digital, theories and contexts

Submission Guidelines: We invite proposals for individual papers. Proposals of 300 words, together with a short biographical note, should be sent to by 30 June 2024. Notifications of acceptance will be sent by 20 July 2024.

Hybrid Options. We plan to make plenaries and keynote addresses available in a hybrid format. We are also planning for a limited number of slots for remote presentations in a hybrid setup at the local conference. When submitting your abstract, please specify “remote presentation required”. If you have any questions regarding this hybrid option, please email the conference organizers.


Bennett, Scott, “The Bibliographic Control of Victorian Periodicals,” Victorian Periodicals: A Guide to Research, ed.

J. Don Vann and Rosemary T. Van Arsdel (New York: Modern Language Association), 1978, pp 21-51.

Brake, L. & Mussell, J., (2015) “Digital Nineteenth-Century Serials for the Twenty-First Century: A Conversation”,

19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 2015(21). doi:

Burnand, Francis C. Records and Reminiscences Personal and General. London : Methuen, 1904 (in 2 vols).

Cayley, Seth and Horrocks, Clare. “The Punch Historical Archive, 1841–1992 : A Sustainable Brand for the Digital

Age,” Victorian Periodicals Review 48(2), Summer 2015, pp. 238-243.

Gray, Donald J. “A List of Comic Periodicals Published in Great-Britain, 1800-1900,” Victorian Periodicals

Newsletter 15, March 1972, pp. 2-39.

Gray, Donald J. “The Uses of Victorian Laughter,” Victorian Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 1966, pp. 145–76.

Cocks, Harry G. and Rubery, Matthew. “Margins of Print: Ephemera, Print Culture and Lost Histories of the Newspaper,” Media History 18(1), 2012.

Joshi, Priti. “Scissors-and-Paste. Ephemerality and Memorialization in the Archive of Indian Newspapers,” Amodern 7 “Ephemera and Ephemerality,” (Priti Joshi and Susan Ziegler eds.), 2017,

Leary, Patrick. “Googling the Victorians,” Journal of Victorian Culture 10(1), 2005, pp. 72-86.

McGann, Jerome. “The Future is Digital,” Journal of Victorian Culture, 13(1), 2008, pp. 80-88.

Maidment, Brian. Comedy, Caricature and the Social Order 1820-50. Manchester: MUP, 2013.

The Curran Index, eds. Lars Atkin and Emily Bell. 2017-present.

Miller, Henry, “The Problem with Punch,” Historical Research 82, Issue 216, May 2009, pp. 285–302.

Mussell, James, The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

__________. “Teaching Nineteenth-Century Periodicals Using Digital Resources: Myths and Methods,”  

Victorian Periodicals Review 45, Number 2, Summer 2012, pp. 201-209.

Nicholson, Bob.  “’Capital Company’: Writing and Telling Jokes in Victorian Britain,” Victorian Comedy & Laughter.

Conviviality, Jokes and Dissent. Lee, Louise (Ed.) Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 109-139.

__________. “The Victorian Meme Machine. Remixing the Nineteenth-Century Archive”, 19: Interdisciplinary

Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 2015. doi:

__________. “Tweeting the Victorians,” Victorian Periodicals Review 48(2), 2015, pp. 254-260.

Spencer, Herbert. ‘The Physiology of Laughter,’ Macmillan’s Magazine 1, March 1860, pp. 395-402.

Stephen, Leslie. ‘Humour’, Cornhill Magazine 33, March 1876, pp. 318-326.

The Victorian Comic Spirit. New Perspectives. Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer A. (Ed.), Ashgate, 2000.

Thomas, Julia. Nineteenth Century Illustration and the Digital. Studies in Word and Image. Palgrave, Macmillan

(eBook), 2017.

Turner, Mark. “Limits and Limitlessness. Miscellaneous Extraction in Nineteenth Century Print,” RSVP YouTube


Victorian Comedy & Laughter. Conviviality, Jokes and Dissent. Lee, Louise (Ed.) Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.