More than metaphor : Felding, Sterne, Austen, Browning and the rising novel as drama.
In his 1749 novel, Tom Jones, Henry Fielding quips that “Every book ought to be read with the same spirit and in the same manner as it is writ” (Fielding 83). It is the contention of this dissertation that though we have read the developing novel in contrast to epic, romance, and news, we have not yet read it in the theatrical spirit and dramatic manner in which it was “writ.” Yet the novelist’s training in the theatre, the novel’s slow usurpation of drama, and the novels’ own assumptions that they are drama, suggest that the comic eighteenth-century century stage is a neglected but rich precursor to the modern novel. This dissertation begins with the assumption that elements of the novel are inherited from drama, identifies four novels that call themselves drama, and then explores one theatrical element in each novel to understand how the novel functions as drama. Tom Jones considers, as Fielding says, “what few have yet considered… the audience at this great drama” (Fielding 211). The novel, aware of a plural, listening audience, casts itself in theatrical terms in response to that audience. Tristram Shandy’s mediating narrator stands on the apron of the novel, and in the space between the audience’s needs and the story’s truth, stages the plot. Mansfield Park captures the resulting staged plot, exploring the interaction between staged worlds and the “real” worlds they inhabit. Finally, The Ring and The Book, a verse novel by Robert Browning, traces the dramatized novel’s move to interiority; we must still “Let this old woe step on stage again” (Browning I.825), but in our mind’s ear and mind’s eye, imaginatively recreating the story-world backstage of the plot. Thus, as the study moves from Fielding’s raucous eighteenth-century audience to Sterne’s conversational apron, to the Austen’s intentional stages, to Browning’s imaginative story-world backstage of the plot, it develops a model of novel-reading based on the theatrical roots of the novel.