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Austen’s Theatricality and the Limits of Realism
Jane Austen’s narrative economy is often praised, as is her psychological realism, yet the first relies in important ways on the stage and the second is haunted by the generic expectations and dramaturgies of the comedy of manners and melodrama. The traditional view of Austen as anti-theatrical has not gone unchallenged, yet even accounts that emphasize her interests and investments in the theater have tended to support a stricter segregation of drama and the novel than I believe is warranted. In this paper I describe Austen’s annexation of theatrical experience for novelistic narration in Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park, in moments that lay bare her registration of the compulsory nature of marriage as they probe the limits of her realism. Austen’s theatricality, I suggest, demands an intermedial history of the novel whose parameters I briefly sketch out.
Marcie Frank is Professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal where she teaches primary 18th-century British literature. She has published Gender, Theater and the Origins of Criticism from Dryden to Manley (Cambridge UP 2003), How to be an Intellectual in the Age of TV: The Lessons of Gore Vidal (Duke UP, 2005), and co-edited with Karen Newman and Jonathan Goldberg This Distracted Globe: Worldmaking in Early Modern Literature(Fordham UP 2016). She has edited a dossier of essays on melodrama that appeared in Criticism 55:4 (Fall) 2013. She has published essays on Horace Walpole in Modern Philology, Frances Burney in ELH, and Elizabeth Inchbald in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, and most recently on Dennis Cooper in a special issue of Angelaki 23:1 (2018) on Queer Objects co-edited by Monique Rooney and Guy Davidson. She is currently revising a book manuscript, “The Novel Stage: Narrative Form from the Comedy of Manners to Melodrama” for Bucknell UP from which the paper on Austen is drawn.