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Extra info for Austen, Actresses and Accessories: Much Ado About Muffs
As Emily Allen argues brilliantly in her book Theater Figures, the nineteenth-century novel’s uneasy relationship to theater and theatricality is largely played out through female characters. Although the nineteenth-century novel works to construct its heroines as “private, interior, and restrained,” these characters are still always “associated with the body, with specularity, and with irrationality”13 simply because they are female. In particular, the figure of the actress, or a woman who “performs,” becomes suspect in these narratives.
Muffs are also connected to Mrs Allen, whose “harmless” delight in fashion signifies her desire to legitimize her body and thus appear worthy as a childless woman. Like actresses, Mrs Allen must rely in many ways on sartorial display to demonstrate her value. Mrs Allen’s “harmless” relationship to fashion is juxtaposed with Isabella’s harmful connections to style, display, and seduction. In both instances, the muff represents the precarious position of the female body caught between modes of representation.
These “Elizas” pay the price for acting on their desires. The Elizas and Muffs The year 1787, when Austen wrote Frederic and Elfrida and many of the portraits of actresses and satirical cartoons appeared, was a notable year, as well, for the arrival after a long absence at Steventon of Austen’s stylish, theatrical, and unsettling cousin Eliza de Feuillide (originally Eliza Hancock and later Eliza Austen when she married Austen’s brother Henry). 28 Several scholars have argued that Eliza may have been the model for Austen’s most theatrical heroines, including, of course, Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park.
Austen, Actresses and Accessories: Much Ado About Muffs by Laura Engel (auth.)