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Backstage in the Novel

Frances Burney and the Theater Arts
Translated by Laura Kopp. Francesca Saggini

BUY Cloth · 344 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813932545 · $49.50 · Jun 2012
BUY Ebook · 344 pp. · ISBN 9780813932644 · $49.50 · Jun 2012

In Backstage in the Novel, Francesca Saggini traces the unique interplay between fiction and theater in the eighteenth century through an examination of the work of the English novelist, diarist, and playwright Frances Burney. Moving beyond the basic identification of affinities between the genres, Saggini establishes a literary-cultural context for Burney's work, considering the relation between drama, a long-standing tradition, and the still-emergent form of the novel.

Through close semiotic analysis, intertextual comparison, and cultural contextualization, Saggini highlights the extensive metatextual discourse in Burney's novels, allowing the theater within the novels to surface. Saggini’s comparative analysis addresses, among other elements, textual structures, plots, characters, narrative discourse, and reading practices. The author explores the theatrical and spectacular elements that made the eighteenth-century novel a hybrid genre infused with dramatic conventions. She analyzes such conventions in light of contemporary theories of reception and of the role of the reader that underpinned eighteenth-century cultural consumption. In doing so, Saggini contextualizes the typical reader-spectator of Burney’s day, one who kept abreast of the latest publications and was able to move effortlessly between "high" (sentimental, dramatic) and "low" (grotesque, comedic) cultural forms that intersected on the stage.

Backstage in the Novel aims to restore to Burney's entire literary corpus the dimensionality that characterized it originally. It is a vivid, close-up view of a writer who operated in a society saturated by theater and spectacle and who rendered that dramatic text into narrative. More than a study of Burney or an overview of eighteenth-century literature and theater, this book gives immediacy to an understanding of the broad forces informing, and channeled through, Burney's life and work.


This book offers fascinating insights into the relationship between the novel and Restoration theater. It is a masterly translation and very welcome to anyone with an interest in the role of women in the eighteenth century.

Susan Bassnett, University of Warwick

Drawing expertly on the wealth of recent studies of Frances Burney as novelist and as dramatist, Backstage in the Novel is the first full-length study of the conjunction between these two aspects of Burney’s writing. In this sensitive translation by Laura Kopp from Francesca Saggini’s Italian, we see how fully the theater permeates Burney’s fiction and how her skills as a novelist inform the creation of her brilliantly witty and satirical comic plays. This is an original, important book on a major eighteenth-century author.

Peter Sabor, Director of the Burney Centre at McGill University

[A]n engaging, well-developed and highly informative study; one of the real delights is the way in which Saggini immerses us in the theatrical and performative culture, which, she argues, so convincingly shaped Burney’s work. As such, this is a study that will be of value not only to Burney scholars, or those interested in women’s writing, but also to scholars and students of eighteenth-century culture more broadly.

Review of English Studies

This wonderful book is the product of a rich scholarly mind. … Francesca Saggini has done a superb job of reading Frances Burney’s plays and novels intertextually.

Restoration and Eighteenth-century Theatre Research

This book is clear, interesting, and accessible to all, including, or perhaps especially, students new to the study of Burney's work. Summing Up: highly recommended.


[A}stute … wide-ranging and insightful.... Critics and editors of Burney’s work are firmly in Saggini’s debt for the book’s twenty-page appendix.... in itself an invaluable resource, the icing on a very rich cake.

Eighteenth-century Fiction

Most impressive are Saggini’s masterful discussions of the theatre and its spectacular influence on contemporary audiences … thoroughly engaging, historically grounded, and rich with pleasurable readings.

The Burney Letter

[T]he book proves an engrossing read... providing an impeccable model of how to combine structuralist analysis with contextual historical understanding.... [A] rich and generous work, thoroughly conversant with the Restoration and eighteenth-century dramatic repertoire.... [A]n important contribution to rethinking the place of the theatre in eighteenth-century culture.

Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies

The notes... are detailed, and the bibliography... and index... are thorough.

Year's Work in English Studies

An important event in recent Burney scholarship... the book deploys an impressive and erudite set of contexts... Saggini’s exceptionally careful reading plots specific scenes in the novel against theatrical gestures and tropes to provide a thought-provoking and very thorough reading.

Year's Work in English Studies

Saggini demonstrates an impressive knowledge of contemporary theatre... this is a significant work of admirable scholarship that resonates beyond Burney studies. Of particular note is the appendix Saggini provides.... [Her] meticulous framing of Burney's works as a product of a heterogeneous entertainment culture is a compelling case study of the dialogic relationship between the performative and literary cultures of the eighteenth century.

Literature & History

Saggini’s own approach to recontextualising Burney is an interesting combination of broad cultural overview and semiotic analysis.... she provides a comprehensive account of generic shifts in theatre... [and] a commendable and comprehensive final appendix of Burney’s "theatralia"... To accumulate this information Saggini has combed through Burney’s literary work, as well as her letters, journals, and her father’s Memoirs and has helpfully categorised each reference according to its dramatic genre....[Her work] undoubtedly provides an example... that should continue to inspire scholarship on Burney, theatre, and the novel.

South Atlantic Review

Backstage in the Novel has the potential to change how we think about cultural production and female authorship in the late-eighteenth century.

Kate Hamilton, Carnegie Mellon University · The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer

About the Author(s): 

Francesca Saggini is Professor of English Literature at the University of Tuscia. Laura Kopp is a freelance translator based in New York.

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