Sunday, 9 November 2014

Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century, Part 4 - Amelia, Section 1

Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century Novel, Part 4:
Amelia, Section 1

Looking at the prevailing obsession with money, the getting and managing of it (and what happens when you can’t pay your debts), in eighteenth century English literature – with specific reference to female heroines in Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724); Henry Fielding’s Amelia (1751), and Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (1782).

We left Roxana for good last time – she had made a good deal of money, and had lost even more.  She ended, as so many novels of the time, broke, shamed and virtually friendless – a female casualty of trying to make it in a man’s world before those opportunities were available, and before it was considered morally acceptable for a woman to be ‘of business’.  Like so many pioneers, amoral and visionary in some respects, Roxana burned out. 

But what happens when we examine a character that did all the right things, and only once breaks out of the confines of her strictly delineated role? Who is the perfect wife?  What happens to the perfect wife when she has a (basically) loser husband?  How can she hold everything together, financially, when he can’t and yet the world pays little attention to her? Let’s see how this was dealt with, back in the 1800s. It will tell us so much about the times: as all fiction does – it tells not only its direct story, but the implications, the connotations; the mores of society, its author…     
And just in case you’re a trifle lost – here are the earlier posts in this series:

=> that’s the Introduction and Abstract to this mammoth undertaking!

=> that’s Roxana, Part 1…in a galaxy far far…etc…

=> that’s the last part of Roxana’s story and it’s analysis.

Welcome to Amelia – the last novel written by Henry Fielding (famous for Tom Jones), and published December 1751.  It’s part of what was referred to at the time as ‘domestic’ novels. To cut along plot short – Amelia, a good and quiet girl, runs off with a soldier to London after a blisteringly romantic attachment and marriage, where he is then wrongly imprisoned.  Disaster.  She is tempted on all sides by offers of help from unscrupulous people, mainly men, and resists them; meanwhile her husband is seduced by another woman in prison.  Their difficulties worsen and worsen, in the way of these novels, until Amelia saves the day by inheriting some money from her mother – she pays off the debt her husband was imprisoned for, and they make a run for it back to the respectable country, from the wicked and dissolute city.  The End.  It’s a real eye opener to the attitudes of the times.

Issues of independence, fear of dependency and a desire for personal freedom are the themes of Roxana; whereas in contrast, the results of dependence and a lack of personal freedom are the basis of Amelia. Barbara Benedict believes the main theme of Amelia, is to explore “kinds of freedom and limitation”[1]. Amelia Booth is the wife of a soldier on half pay, whose troubled married life is the subject of the novel.  Andrew Wright notes that for Fielding it was a bold stroke to begin Amelia where most eighteenth-century books with a female heroine end: marriage[2]. However, Amelia’s marital problems are not love entanglements; Amelia is not a romance. Her problems centre around the moral character of her husband, whose confusion over how to live his life after his army position ends cause her and her children ever more distress.  Eventually, they are thrown almost into beggary.  Billy Booth is not a bad person at all, but has a “blind spot where his financial common sense should be”[3].

My aim in this part of the Women and Debt essay, is to look at the couple when they reach London, exploring Fielding’s presentation of London as a place of both financial corruption and moral danger. The debtor’s prison will be briefly examined, to highlight Fielding’s attitude to the financial and moral venality inherent in the practice of debt laws.  I will explore the issue of Amelia as contained within the private sphere, and how this results in her financial dependency and lack of personal freedom.  I will explain how she resets her own ‘value’ at a pivotal point in the novel, and how her husband finding his way out of the moral maze (and into contemporary approved Christian thinking) sets the stage for Fielding to allow Providence to save them from destitution near the end[4].

London 1750

 At the start of their marriage, the Booths live comfortably in the countryside.  This, for Fielding, is shorthand for his location of all things pleasant, traditional, trustworthy and honest.  It is where “all eighteenth-century couples of Christian values and right-thinking should wish to be”[5].  Almost immediately, the family are beset by problems, centring around Booth’s inability to support his family.  Despite his genuine worth as a soldier, he cannot progress further without the purchase of a commission.  Meanwhile, Amelia is swindled by her sister out of the small family inheritance that could have maintained the family’s financial stability.  Booth, who is deeply in love with Amelia throughout the book (despite his failings), is for the first time seriously troubled about money, explaining later whilst in debtor’s prison:

This was the first time I had ever felt that distress which arises from the want of money; a distress very dreadful indeed in a married state: for what can be more miserable than to see anything necessary to the preservation of a beloved creature, and not be able to supply it?[6]

Dr Harrison’s efforts to set them up in the country fail when Booth succumbs to social pretensions and poses as a gentleman when he is a farmer.  Debt and social ostracism follow, and the Booths are forced to flee to London to escape debts they cannot pay[7].  Here, Booth is beset by failure after failure, as he attempts by one means or other to extricate himself from debt and regain a livelihood – with an increase in debt as the usual result of these schemes.  He is hoodwinked repeatedly by those in power, who are more interested in the pursuit of Amelia than in aiding Booth in any real way.  Muriel Brittain Williams observes: “the way of advancement is always open at the price of Amelia’s honour.  Thus, the financial problems of the Booths merge with their moral problems”[8]

A typical image of London as dangerous, popularised by the King of This Sort of Thing: Hogarth.  Here, a 1732 drawing of a harlot dying of venereal disease in an enclosed and overcrowded living space...

In the dangerous London painted by Fielding, extremes of poverty and wealth abound, with social mobility possible but unstable in its results due to economic fluctuation.  Fielding’s London is a very volatile environment.  W. Austin Flanders suggests that the sort of moral isolation faced by Booth in London life is a problem often dealt with in eighteenth-century thought: “the city [is] the distillery of all the corruptions of economic individualism”.  That is, over the age, many writers touch on the twin issues of the growth of mercantile economics and the concomitant depersonalization of humans before market forces[9].  The closeness to what James Thompson terms “the cash nexus”, causes Amelia’s London characters to have a grasping quality, where the mercenary connotations of a legal contract bleed into all aspects of people’s relationships, leaving them “stripped of obligation and become simple items of possession, negotiation or bribe”[10].  The prison scenes in particular, show Fielding as reacting against the so-called ‘freedom’ of the market, where obligation and corruption seem a necessity, and justice and freedom have to be bought.

John Richetti believes that the prison scenes, especially those so close to the start of the book perform the function of “providing an […] initial tone of confusion and contradiction, of aimless disaster and hopelessness that is never fully dissipated in the rest of the book”[11].  Indeed, the early chapters are dominated by the procession of iniquity that is the sentencing of Justice Thrasher’s court, where plaintiffs are judged on appearance and race.  Thus, barely allowing one man to speak, Thrasher interrupts: “ ‘Sirrah, your tongue betrays your guilt.  You are an Irishman, and that is always sufficient evidence with me.’” (p.17). Fielding satirises Thrasher thus:

The magistrate had too great an honour for truth to suspect that she ever appeared in sordid apparel; nor did he ever sully his sublime notions of that virtue, by uniting them with the mean ideas of poverty and distress. (p.19)

There are many examples of Thrasher’s prejudicial judgements: perhaps the most notable being a maid on an errand for her mistress to fetch a midwife for a birthing, judged a streetwalker (p.17).  Booth himself is sentenced unfairly for his part in trying to prevent a mugging, and duly finds himself in jail.  There, unable to pay his way by means of garnish and ‘civility’ money, he discovers the hierarchy of forms of imprisonment: the poorer inmates have a much lower standard of life in terms of food, space, clothing and accoutrements.  One man languishes in jail although his sentence has been long quashed: he cannot afford to pay his legal fees (p.26).  Small financial crimes of necessity are punished harshly with excessive prison sentences: for example, a daughter is incarcerated for stealing a loaf of bread for her starving father; he is imprisoned with her, “for receiving it knowing it to be stolen” (p.25). In prison, everything is clear, if bleak: a debt is to be paid, by whatever means possible; not having the wherewithal is not the problem of those working within the system, as Booth finds out in a later prison experience, dealing with the bail bondsman, Bondum.  Bondum has a pure economics market view of debt (which Defoe would back as logical).  He expounds to Booth, when Booth explains he simply cannot pay the money he owes:

To be sure men must be obliged to pay for their debts, or else there would be an end of everything. […]  Would not it be the hardest thing in the world if a man could not arrest another man for a just and lawful debt?  Is not liberty the constitution of England? (p.318)

Money is seen as the essence of a person: Bondum, by his reasoning, is in this sense morally superior to Booth.  He argues that to be debt free is to be a more worthwhile person:

Newgate, to be sure, is the place for all the debtors that can’t find bail. […]  I owe nobody a shilling.  I am no beggar, nor debtor.  I am the King’s Officer.  As well as you, and I will spend guinea for guinea, as long as you please. (p.357).

Rioters set fire to Newgate during the Gordon Riots of 1780

 John Zomchick postulates that Bondum is: “part of a structure that legitimizes particular passions [in this case, the acquisition and possession of material goods] by bringing them into accord with the law”[12].

It is in prison that Booth meets an acquaintance, Miss Mathews, whom he has not seen for many years.  She is a character with the moral scruples of Roxana; and her function in the book is unclear: she does, however, show the reader that Booth has trouble resisting temptation, and needs a moral guide to be with him constantly.  She is also quite wealthy through her liaisons and acting career, implicitly suggesting, by her presence, that it is much easier to advance, or even to merely subsist, in the economic world, if one is prepared to be pragmatic and amoral.  She pays his way in the prison for much of his stay.  Booth has a spontaneous and ill-advised affair with her, whilst they are in prison; he spends a portion of the rest of the novel trying to break it off with her. 

Ms Mathews is an interesting character, for in many ways she is the dark double of Amelia, being anything but the adoring wife: instead she moves from liaison to liaison, her emotions ebbing and flowing according to how they suit her material needs and monetary whims. Richard J.Dircks feels her a worthy foil to Amelia’s goodness, describing her as “a sprightly opportunist, […] an attractive personality possessed of shifting standards of virtue”[13].  Wright goes one farther, describing her aptly, as “a kind of waif: a Defoe character in a Fielding world”[14].  Richetti sees Amelia as about betrayal and adultery, for sexual favours and power.  Booth’s infidelity with Ms Mathews is an unusual case in its spontaneity, and in his remorse afterwards, as most of the other couples (and singles) in the book “are bent without shame or scruple upon conspiracy and betrayal to serve their own pleasure” – and monetary interest[15].


That’s where we’ll leave it today – a grim picture of life in prison for Booth.  Next instalment, we’ll see what temptations and troubles befall Amelia outside of prison, and how she reacts.

[1] Barbara M. Benedict, Framing Feeling: Sentiment and Style in English Prose Fiction, 1745-1800 (New York: AMS Press, 1994), p.31.
[2] Andrew Wright, Henry Fielding: Mask and Feast (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965), p.53.
[3] Judith Frank, Common Ground: Eighteenth-Century English Satiric Fiction and the Poor (Califormia: Stanford University Press, 1997), p.52.
[4] Twin obsessions of Amelia critics seem to be: her incredible goodness and patience as a wife; and second, the incredible mass of incident and incidental characters presented in the book as a whole: the layering of one unfortunate circumstance after another. It would be unprofitable to lay too much extra emphasis on ground already so well covered, so this examination of Amelia will only touch on these two factors contextually, and on the way to making other points.
[5] Frank, pp.108-9. See also, ‘Introduction’ to The Rural Idyll, G.E. Mingay (ed.), (London: Routledge, 1989), for a summary of the eighteenth-century town and country dichotomy.
[6] Henry Fielding, Amelia (London: Penguin, 1987), p.117.  All further references to this text are given in the main body of the chapter, without parentheses.
[7] Craig Muldrew comments that credit had a real transforming impact on eighteenth-century society, with “no one able to avoid it: the poor as well as the rich, rural people as well as urban”.  Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (London: Macmillan Press, 1998), p.97.
[8] Muriel Brittain Williams, Marriage: Fielding’s Mirror of Morality (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1973), p.101.
[9] W. Austin Flanders, Structures of Experience: History, Society and Personal Life in the Eighteenth Century British Novel (Colombia, S. Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), p.277, 292.
[10] James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p.1.44.
[11] John Richetti, The English Novel in History, 1700-1780 (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.151.
[12] John P. Zomchick, Family and the Law in Eighteenth Century Fiction: The Public Conscience in the Private Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.139.
[13] Richard J. Dirks, Henry Fielding (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), p.116.
[14] Wright, p110.
[15] Richetti, p.157.

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