For some unknown reason, we tend to look back at the Victorians and consider them rather grim. I put this attitude down to the black & white photographs from the era. Even the brightest colours are reduced to dreary shades of dust and charcoal in B&W photography, and the unsmiling expressions were an artefact of the length of exposure time to obtain a clear photo. As an example, study the image above. The uniforms of the men could be scarlet for all we know, and the presence of the ‘smoking’ hobbyhorse, balancing baby doll, and toy cannon suggests this image was taken in jest. I would love to know the full story behind this image; I suspect this might be a bachelor party.
Most humour is ephemeral. But there are several strong suggestions that the Victorians enjoyed a good laugh: the success of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Gilbert & Sullivan; the enormous number of humorous photos and postcards; the popularity of Punch magazine; the lyrics of music hall songs; and the fact that even the most serious novels usually had some humorous scenes. So much for the stiff upper lip …
So, what does this mean for your Steampunk narrative? Some authors add humour to their work as a matter of course, like Michael Pryor, while Ged Maybury writes with the intent of creating a humorous novel. The definition of what is humour changes from person to person. If you want to throw a tragedy into sharp focus, you contrast it to humour – the premise of nearly every modern horror movie.
The best humour isn’t forced. When in doubt, take it out. There is no such thing as half funny.