A brief survey of recent publications in Romanticism suggests that there has been a dramatic upsurge of interest over the past five years in the drama of the period. New biographies of Elizabeth Inchbald by Annibel Jenkins, and critical studies of Joanna Baillie by Thomas Crochunis, Judith Slagle and others, attest to the impact the recovery of women writers is having on the history of the drama. The 2003 publication of Jeffrey Cox and Michael Gamer‘s Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama makes it possible to teach this material. A longer view that takes in recent scholarship in eighteenth-century studies reveals a similar tendency. Julie Stone Peters’s Theater of the Book mines recent work in the history of the book to situate the development of drama in relation to emergent print culture. Lisa Freeman’s Characters’ Theater locates the development of character in the theater. At a more abstract level, William Warner’s Licensing Entertainment invites us to reconsider the novels of the mid-18th century as media events. Taken together, this body of work suggests that the segregation of theater history from the history of the other writing of the period may be coming to an end. Cross-media researches will continue to enrich our sense of the literary history of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. Emily Allen’s beautifully written and cogently argued Theater Figures belongs in this group and makes an important contribution to it, for it tracks the figure of the theater over the course of the nineteenth century as it functions variously in the consolidation of the modern literary hierarchy.
Allen is utterly persuasive in making the case that novelists from Frances Burney, Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, to Charles Dickens, Mary Braddon and George Moore, use the theater to define the domestic novel, partly because she has selected her figures and texts with an unerring eye. A sensitive reader and a stylish writer, Allen’s book is a pleasure to read as it tracks the complicated reversals of fortune that the theater undergoes. In her account, the theater figures exhibit a changing representational density: whereas characters in Burney and Austen experience the theater when they attend or participate in performances so that they are theatricalized at a distance, in Dickens, Braddon and Moore, they are both more fully and more allegorically associated with the theater because they are actors -- literally, figuratively or both. Scott is the intermediary figure between these two modes.
As Allen argues, in Burney’s Evelina and Austen’s Mansfield Park, the theater is figured as the opposite of novelistic domesticity, which is gendered female. In Redgauntlet, by contrast, it aids in the consolidation of the historical novel as the masculine subsumption of romance when Scott uses the courtroom drama to locate domesticity in a national arena. In the book’s second half, Allen turns her attention to novelists’ attitudes towards mass consumption, but partly because gender remains an important term of analysis, she makes a smooth transition.
One of the major strengths of this book is its skillful intertwining of the narrative of Bourdieuian processes of distinction with gender, status, and literacy. Allen points out that the use of theater figures to map the status of the domestic novel had become so familiar by the mid-nineteenth century that both Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop and Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half Sisters could treat home and stage as uncanny doubles for one another. With characteristic flair, Allen pairs this unlikely couple of novels to display their shared fascination with twins, sisters and look-a-likes. Both Dickens and Jewsbury use these doubles to disentangle the feminine ideal from her theatrical relations and work out the strained generic relations between the novel and the theater by re-describing what middle-class fiction should do.
Allen then analyzes the English uptake of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in Mary Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife and George Moore’s The Mummer’s Wife. She carefully and persuasively teases out the role the figure of the theater plays in these authors’ negotiations of increased audience stratification. The final two chapters are the best in the book as they richly convey the roles played by theater and performativity in the debates over the aesthetics, politics and effects of the novel in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Allen fluently relates the novels she discusses to a variety of social and cultural contexts throughout the book’s second half, which mitigates its main structural problem: by treating the theater as a figure, Allen ignores it as a site of literary production in its own right. However, the dematerialization of the theater is only really a problem where Allen offers a thinner picture of the social or aesthetic field. For example, Allen reads Evelina as a protracted scene of generic competition between the drama and the bildungsroman, but does not take into account that Burney wrote plays throughout her life even if they were not published. Nor do the readings of Austen and Scott register the different kinds of importance theater had for each of them as writers as well as spectators. As a result, at times, the dizzying reversals in gender and status float free from any basis external to the novels, with Allen seeming to relish interpretive complication for its own sake. Overall, although Allen’s dazzling readings of Burney, Austen and Scott’s local figurations of the theater are powerful and suggestive, I am not wholly persuaded that these writers thought of novel-writing in opposition to the stage.
Allen raises important questions about Burney, Austen and Scott’s relations to the theater, but treating the theater as a figure makes it impossible to answer them. She is much more successful in negotiating the figure of the theater in the rest of the book. Indeed, the book’s center of gravity is in the Victorian period and her analysis there gains from her commendable use of the longue durée. The book also develops a forward drive: Allen sharpens and enriches our sense of the dynamics informing the ultimate separation of aesthetics from politics that the era of High Modernism ushers in, a skeletal outline of which is even tantalizingly visible in her treatment of Moore.
Allen has produced a significant new account of the nineteenth-century British novel by treating the theater as a figure in its history. Making the important observation that theater figures in the development of the domestic novel, she generates fascinating readings of how it functions as a figure. This book is a valuable contribution to the ongoing renegotiation of the boundaries between literary and social texts, and among literary sites of production. It will make it possible to approach the question of why the theater figured so insistently in the novel’s emergence.