I am reading Middlemarch. I am up to the moment in Chapter 5 when Dorothea decides she must tell Celia she is determined to marry Mr. Casaubon. Before she has said anything about it there is the following exchange. Celia begins:
“Is any one else coming to dine besides Mr. Casaubon?”
“Not that I know of.”
“I hope there is some one else. Then I shall not hear him eat his soup so.”
“What is there remarkable about his soup-eating?”
“Really, Dodo, can’t you hear how he scrapes his spoon? And he always blinks before he speaks.”
My two companions are deep in their Scandinavian noirs and so I resist the impulse to cackle out loud, thinking this is as deliciously funny as anything in Jane Austen, and with rather more human sympathy. For Celia already knows her sister intends to marry the appalling man. The exchange continues:
“Celia,” said Dorothea, with emphatic gravity, “pray don’t make any more observations of that kind.”
“Why not? They are quite true,” returned Celia, who had her reasons for persevering, though she was beginning to be a little afraid.
“Many things are true which only the commonest minds observe.”
“Then I think the commonest minds must be rather useful. I think it is a pity Mr. Casaubon’s mother had not a commoner mind: she might have taught him better.”
This sympathetic relishing of the intelligence and wit of the designated light-weight, the frivolous sister, is arresting, in an author so famously serious herself. But, as G.K.Chesterton’s reminds us, funny is not the opposite of serious. “Funny is the opposite of not funny,” he says, “and of nothing else.” George Eliot is funny and serious. As well we might say, as does Chesterton, of certain politicians that they are neither funny nor serious.