Jenny Davidson Talks to Marcie Frank, author of The Novel Stage

JMD: I love this book. I love it partly because I’ve been thinking about many of the same issues ever since I started teaching the Restoration and eighteenth-century drama lecture course at Columbia as a young assistant professor. I hadn’t studied it in graduate school; I was more focused on fiction and nonfiction prose, and I was astonished to see how intertwined plays are with the fiction of the period, and how little critics seemed to talk about it. But I also love it because your angles on the topic are so fresh to me, both intellectually and in the details.

I especially love your reading of the so-called “steinkirk” scene in Colley Cibber’s The Careless Husband (1704) (56), one of a cluster of rake plays that includes Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (1696) and Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (1696) and that can’t be understood without some comprehension of casting and repertoire. Late in the book, you link that famous scene of Cibber’s rake husband “awaking to virtue” with a scene in Burney’s Love and Fashion (c. 1796), a really lovely demonstration of the long shadow early eighteenth-century stage comedy cast over the novel almost a century later.

When and how did you first realize that juxtaposing novels and plays in this particular way was going to give you powerful leverage on the puzzle of why our subfield focuses so relentlessly on the rise of realism and the novel despite the flagrant strangeness—the non- or anti-realism—of so many of the century’s popular novels?

MF: Imagining what the history of the novel would look like with Frances Burney, rather than Richardson and/or Fielding, at the center was one of the main motivations of the book, and, though I wouldn’t have been able to put it this way when I started, my research began with Burney. Drama plays a crucial role in Burney’s literary imagination: it gives backstage access to her relentless repetitiveness and cruel humour. Her plays show some of this; a bigger challenge was figuring out how to convey the ways her deep engagement with drama manifested in her narrative innovations. I learned early that Cibber was important to Burney: though she had replaced The Provoked Husband by Othello as the play put on by the strolling players in Camilla (1796), she couldn’t let go of it and retained it as the amateur production of The Wanderer (1814). But it took me a while to figure out how to make sense of this. I was interested in the allusions to plays, trips to the theater, amateur theatricals, etc., that appeared in novels, but too much focus on this element, I felt, would simply retell the story of the novel’s displacement or incorporation of the theater that assumed the triumph of novelistic realism. I wanted to find different ways to describe the two-way traffic between them. When I turned next in my research to examine the ways first Restoration and early 18th-century plays and then novels tell the story of the rake’s reform, I was struck by the literalism of Cibber’s careless husband waking up to virtue. I could recognize in the figure asleep on the stage what was so irritating about Cibber to both Pope and Fielding. Cibber was incredibly popular even beyond the 18thcentury. I am delighted by all the recent attention he’s been getting from Elaine McGirr, Julia Fawcett, and Darryl Domingo. He deserves to be more than a footnote in eighteenth-century literary studies.

JMD: I had a very keen sense, as I read, of the clarity of your thought. You have the best possible version of what I think of as a Hopkins strength (you did your graduate work at Johns Hopkins, didn’t you?) – an awareness of the power of formal argumentation and a strong commitment to always explaining, in the clearest possible words, what your own argument is and how it differs from those of other critics. How do you experience the relationship between argument and creativity in this kind of critical writing?

MF: What I learned at Hopkins, first and foremost, was how to cultivate a critical accountability to literary critical and theoretical traditions and trends in my own areas of study and in the profession more generally. For me, the creativity comes in two phases: the early phase of reading in which I cultivate my intuitions about how particular texts work and do research basically guided by free association (the fun part!); and a later phase, in which I figure out, ideally without losing confidence, how to situate my approach in relation to others’ paradigms and conclusions. Creativity precedes argument and argument clarifies creativity. I try not to worry about being too obvious or to get too intimidated by what others think. But it has taken me a while to be willing and able clearly to bring out my views, and Hopkins played a significant role in making me feel like hiding. You have no idea how flattering I find it to be called clear!

JMD: I pulled this sentence because I felt it sums up perfectly the force of your contribution here. It’s simple and clear and nobody has said it before, at least not with such explicit awareness of how much is at stake for the ways we understand eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo-American fiction. Your formulation: “Thinking media and genre together in the history of the novel obliges us to recognize that novelistic realism was mediated by the genres of literature, including drama, and by its media, performance as well as print” (40). How long did it take you to arrive at this formulation, and why do you think it hasn’t been generally recognized as a premise that should govern our investigations of eighteenth-century novelistic modes?

MF: A number of things contribute to this professional self-blinding. First, sub-disciplinary overspecialization such that scholars of the novel think and write about and teach mainly novels, and theater scholars think and write about and teach mainly plays, even though they also know that novelists did not read (or even write) novels only, and playwrights did not pay attention only to plays. Genuine methodological differences reinforce the separation between theater studies and literary studies, a boundary that can be crossed under the rubric of interdisciplinarity. However, and secondly, interdisciplinary research has tended to push out laterally to “non-literary” discourses within the same tightly bound historical sub-periods of scholars’ initial training. Both of these formations have obscured the significance of literary history, particularly the history of the idea of literature and its modes of organization. Both of these factors reflect the professional reward for speed and quantity of publication.

A third factor inhibiting the general recognition that the novel was mediated by other genres, including drama, and by media other than print, including performance, is more specific: an anti-theatrical disposition that literary criticism has inherited from modernism. While researching the book, I was taken aback to hear at least two prominent older scholars say, “Oh, I hate the theater!” when no one in our business would ever be heard to utter, “Oh, I hate poetry!” This attitude may have begun to fade, and since the history of the novel’s relations to the stage can’t be completed by any single scholar, I am heartened that others, including Katherine Mannheimer, Ros Ballaster, Rebecca Tierney-Hynes, and Erin Keating are now at work on the problem.

I should also say that my conceptualization of the intersections of media and genre was shaped by the work I had done about the effects of screen media on the novel for my book about Gore Vidal. Plus, the recent digital turn shaped my sense of how critical a factor media is in literary analysis. It was more a question of how to put this into play for historical analysis, that is, how to produce a mode of reading in which questions of media could be collated with questions of genre and narrative form.

JMD: This is a follow-up of sorts to the previous question. You write: “The scholarly treatment of the problem of fictionality as it permits the imaginative engagement of readers…and gives rise to the mechanisms for vicarious identification with characters…or resistances to it” (the books you’re alluding to here are Catherine Gallagher’s Nobody’s Story, Deidre Lynch’s The Economy of Character and Lisa Freeman’s Character’s Theatre) “has assumed that the processes of suspension of disbelief and imaginary identification can be historicized and that the mechanics of vicarious identification work basically through character. The historicist aim is admirable, but the investment in the category of character ends up unnecessarily privileging one genre of literature over another or one genre of novels (realist ones) over others” (86). What does making character central cost us?

MF: I buy wholeheartedly the argument that character has a history, but I also think that to center the category of character in the history of the novel is to risk committing to a trajectory that privileges the psychological novel in a line running from Richardson and Austen through George Eliot and Henry James, and on to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in which problems of consciousness are expressed through refinements of the formal device of free indirect discourse. There are other ways to get at how minds are represented, as Jonathan Kramnick, Wendy Lee, Elisha Cohn, and others have shown. But the pleasures of novels cannot be reduced to those of identification with characters, for readers also identify with objects, scenes, and styles.

Most novels, including some by the authors listed above, represent social experience and historical change in ways that go beyond any individual character in scenes that orchestrate actions and ensembles in landscapes, cityscapes, or drawing rooms, some of whom may be types drawn from the stage, or may otherwise be mechanized or de-individuated. Alex Woloch gets at some of this. Many novels use narrative elements associated with gothic, adventure, detective, or various other “minor” genres to accomplish these goals, so that the focus on vicarious relations to character can also reinforce the status hierarchy that elevates the art novel and its precursors above what has come to be called genre fiction. Historically, women and minorities have broken into literature by writing in these genres, a process which it is incumbent upon the literary history of the novel to capture. Of course, it is possible for work on character to distance itself from these tendencies, but it first has to show awareness of them.

JMD: Writing a book is hard, and I deduce from the acknowledgments of this one that you found it particularly painful and protracted in this particular case. Will you tell our readers something about why it was hard to write this book? I’m interested in all the dimensions: the question of how we can hold on to writing at midcareer when we are stretched very thin in other aspects of work and personal life as well; how we decide what kind of book to write once the hurdle of tenure has been cleared and there is significantly more freedom; how the availability or lack of particular resources shaped your topic and your process.

MF: This book was hard to write in the first instance because I had so much to learn about theater history and performance studies, media theory, and the history of the novel in the Romantic period. I came to understand why people stay in the areas in which they have acquired expertise! It also took me some time to figure out how to tell the long arc of the story. I knew the conceptual or theoretical arguments but how to make my choices make sense in their unfolding was challenging both at the level of research and writing. I also only realized relatively late in the process that Austen belonged, and then keeping her from overwhelming everything else took some doing.

From the start of my career, I have bounced around between eighteenth-century studies and work on more contemporary figures, and it has gotten easier as I’ve gone along for me to see what connects my interests: the movements between the stage and criticism in my first book on Dryden and his female heirs; Vidal’s navigations of print and screen as they enabled him to stay in the public eye in my second book; and various other ways of working across media and genre in essays on the graphic novel, Walpole, Dennis Cooper. In this book, I was able to take charge of the concepts more directly and thereby to clarify the value of exploring them together.

I began thinking about this project in 2005, and in the course of working on it, academic book publishing changed. It was not obvious to me that I was actually going to find a publisher for it. One press demanded a round of revisions that ultimately proved useless; none of those changes ended up in the book. I am very grateful that the book exists in the world. Since I began the project, the field of literary studies has also contracted. I feel extremely lucky to have had the freedom provided by tenure to pursue my own interests. Mid-career scholars are adapting to new realities that bring substantially different challenges and rewards than those our training led us to expect. It may be difficult to believe that professional rewards accrue on the basis of anything other than luck and timing these days, but the falling away of some illusory meritocracy also exposes the importance of taking the creative risks that will keep our interests and research alive both to ourselves and to others.

Marcie Frank, professor of English at Concordia, has just published The Novel Stage: Narrative Form from the Restoration to Jane Austen with Bucknell. Her new project is about contemporary autofiction in the long history of the novel.

5 Questions With Jenny Davidson is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that features conversations with authors of recently published works. If you’ve recently published a book and would like to be interviewed, please get in touch with us.

Leave a Reply

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top