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The Comedy of Difference: Britishness & Otherness, 1775-1850 - ENG00120M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Jim Watt
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

This module explores the cultural history of laughing at – and occasionally with – foreigners in the period between Britain’s disastrous war with its American colonies (no laughing matter) and the mid-nineteenth century, when Britain ruled the waves as the world’s pre-eminent power. It looks at texts, and some images, which generally make little claim to respectability, do not aspire to depict other peoples and cultures with accuracy, and present ethnic and cultural difference – and especially ordinary Britons’ encounter with that difference – as ripe for comic treatment.

The primarily metropolitan texts that we will discuss influentially helped to establish and circulate a kind of common knowledge about otherness, at the level of cultural stereotypes regarding customary practices (such as widow-burning in India or foot-binding in China) and national characteristics (the supposed blundering garrulity of the Irish), as well as in terms of generalized associations and ideas – for example that Africa was essentially savage or that Asia was a domain of sexual despotism where men tyrannized over women.

The module will engage with the ongoing debate among historians about how Britons ‘lived’ their empire in this period. Rather than view such texts as straightforwardly consolidating an imperial British identity, however, we will focus on the reflexiveness and (sometimes) deceptive sophistication of the materials under discussion. As we will see, even casual and ethnocentric reference to alien customs and manners often provides a means of thinking about domestic political affairs, social distinction, and/or Britons’ own much-vaunted freedoms.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

The aim of this module is to help you think about how comic writing helped Britons to understand themselves in relation to their others across the period 1775-1850

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module, you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with a range of literary and non-literary texts, in their historical contexts
  • Show an awareness of changing languages of ethnic and cultural difference in this period
  • Demonstrate an advanced understanding of the role of comic writing in helping Britons to situate themselves in relation to their others
  • Evaluate key debates in relevant critical fields
  • Produce independent arguments and ideas which reflect an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills


Task Length % of module mark
4000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
4000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

Indicative reading

Indicative Primary Reading:

Charles Dickens, ‘The Noble Savage’

Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent

Thomas Hood, ‘The Desert-Born’

Elizabeth Inchbald, The Mogul Tale

Charles Lamb, ‘Old China’ and ‘A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig’

Matthew Lewis, Timour the Tartar

Thomas Manning, ‘Chinese Jests’

Fanny Parkes, Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque

Mariana Starke, The Sword of Peace

William Thackeray, Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.