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Do you know, I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine, in a shop window in Milsom-street just now – very like yours, only with coquelicot ribbons instead of green; I quite longed for it. But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all morning? ” Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey, 32). Although Austen’s letters are full of references to clothing, accessories, and shopping, the prevailing notion about Austen’s relationship to fashion and consumer culture is largely derived from her novels.

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.

The real Eliza (and her fictional doubles) are emblematic of the potential permeable boundaries between the theatrical and the domestic, which will translate in Austen’s later works to the dangerous border between the safe world of primary heroines in her novels and the dismal fate of secondary characters left to fend for themselves in the scandalous environment outside of the narrative. 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).

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