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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The English Novel's Cradle: The Theatre and the Women Novelists of the Long Eighteenth Century

  • Author(s): Howard, James Joseph
  • Advisor(s): Haggerty, George E.
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the relationship between the drama and the novel in the "Long" Eighteenth Century, with the focus on the women who wrote in both genres during this period and on the impact of female playwriting upon the evolution and refinement of the emerging English novel. Ten such writers are the subject of this study, starting with Aphra Behn and concluding with Frances Burney. The uneasy relationship women had with the theatre of the period has been well documented, and conventional wisdom has been that as the eighteenth century progressed, the novel became the preferred (or perhaps culturally imposed) literary venue for most female authors. However, my research reveals the succession of women writers who began their careers as dramatists, or wrote for the theatre soon after attempting other genres, continued unbroken throughout the eighteenth century. Most of these writers persisted in writing plays, even after they achieved success in fiction. It is true the production of novels, largely written by and for women, increased exponentially; but in a revised "feminist" version of the "rise of the novel" narrative, the dramatists in this study, such as Eliza Haywood, figure prominently in the development of the new genre, alongside their iconic male counterparts.

There was a pattern of conformity and resistance in the work of these writers. They sought to achieve literary acceptance in the paternalistic public forum of the theatre by espousing traditional literary standards and conventions, and by extending those standards into the evolving genres of prose fiction. They also resisted, in their fiction, at least, "feminizing" trends that were developing as a result of the bourgeois fashions of sentiment and domestication, often by adopting the "masculine" classically based model of the novel established by Henry Fielding. Frances Burney's oeuvre represents the culmination of the eighteenth-century relationship between play writing and novel writing by women, but deviates from the pattern. As a frustrated, failed playwright, Burney sublimated her dramatic impulse more extensively into her fiction, especially Camilla and The Wanderer, infusing her novels with a distinctive, theatrical motif that anticipates the narrative innovation of Jane Austen's novels.

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