Eloquent Bodies: Disability and Sensibility in the Novels of Frances Burney and Jane Austen
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The Culture of Sensibility permeates both Burney’s and Austen’s novels. Burney and Austen both use anomalous bodies and minds as a vehicle to explore the performative requirements of the Culture of Sensibility. The performance of disability, including bodily manifestations of nervous disorders, melancholy, and hypochondria, allows sensibility to become visible on the body. This dissertation examines the similarities between Burney’s and Austen’s portrayals of disability in order to understand how Austen’s texts engage and reflect Burney’s influence. Despite the frequency with which disability is necessary for the production of Sensibility, the connection between disability and Sensibility remains unexplored. This dissertation investigates the connection between various performances of disability with the Culture of Sensibility and exposes the narrative reliance on the anomalous body in both Burney’s and Austen’s novels. Through a combination of disability theory and performance theory, this dissertation examines the Culture of Sensibility’s reliance on the non-normative body for the performance of sentimental behaviour. Disability theory allows for the examination of the anomalous body beyond that of a strictly medical definition. Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price illustrates the difference between the medical and social construction of disability. Using only the medical model, Fanny’s debility represents her poor health; however, the social construction of disability connects Fanny’s debility to the fetishization of the anomalous body by the Culture of Sensibility. Disability features in Burney’s and Austen’s courtship narratives, as temporary physical and mental impairment provide opportunities for physical proofs of Sensibility, somatic communication of desire, and narrative resolution. Both Burney’s and Austen’s illness narratives of characters with permanent disabilities reveal concerns of the appropriation of the ii invalid’s favourable position within the Culture of Sensibility through an affected performance of disability. Male characters with temporary or permanent physical impairment suffer effeminization and exclusion from courtship narratives, whereas instances of female invalidism contribute to successful resolution of courtship narratives. I conclude that Burney’s and Austen’s reliance on the anomalous body to prove sensibility indicates that the late-eighteenth century sentimental novel normalizes the anomalous body.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
CommitteeOakleaf, David; Stephanson, Ray; Teucher, Ulrich; Vargo, Lisa
Copyright DateMarch 2015