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).
I’ve grown up rather bad with money. It stems from not having much of it as a child, and then reacting unrealistically to credit when I was advanced it as a teen in my first job. I’ve struggled between what I want, need and using emotional shopping to fill the places of other needs. I’ve paid debts of others, wantonly borrowed money and not paid it back myself, and suffered from the financial vagaries of partners. It meant, that when I came to do my MA in eighteenth century English literature, that I did what all my group did – we all, interestingly, picked a subject to examine through literature, that we were obsessed with in our private lives. I picked money, and women, and debt. How you imagine through money (which equals choice) that you can be free. Money can free you – but it can also enslave you.
Imagine how either of these things would be even moreso true in a less enlightened age. Go back 200 or 300 years. When women were still more or less property of men; where their money if middle class or above, was not really their own, unless they were very strong and independent. If they were working class or just on the cusp of middle class, their choices became visceral and limited quite quickly. And just like today; who you were with affected your chances in life too – if your husband was bad with money, or your father had not provided for his daughters (Jane Austen of course comes to mind), then you’d find your options extremely limited very quickly.
I re-read my dissertation recently, and whilst it was victim to some necessarily awful yawny academic writing, it did still have some good points to make on the subject of women, money and debt and how these things affected your private and public life – and indeed, if you even managed a public life. It also had a lot to say about the professed and received opinions of that era on the subject of women and money: socio-cultural background stuff. I found all this interesting – I hope you will too. (Speaking of yawny awful academic writing, this will be the subject of a soon to be posted Things That Annoy Me post - you need to read some of this post before I post that, or you won't be annoyed enough!)
So I’ve re-written it a touch (only a touch), edited and changed bits. It’s now a shorter, but hopefully still interesting essay, in several parts that I’ll put up as a continuing series, footnoted for those of you able to run off to a proper university and check stuff if you feel the need (though some of these books are so out of print, or had such small academic runs, they are virtually impossible to find and unheard of since their original publication; or have been republished changed, expanded or shaven, under different titles, or had only bits taken and added to other publications as essays). Here’s part 1 – the tying it all together Abstract bit. ‘Abstract’ is another word for the introduction – remember what you were told in school: say what you’re going to say; say it; then say what you said. Intro, meaty middle, conclusion.
NB - Whilst you would expect me to make reference to loads of other novels of the age that are also relevant – Defoe’s Moll Flanders (what a woman, she’s on my list of people I wish to be more like); the works of Ann Radcliffe (who had much to say about financially imperilled females behind all that gothic window dressing); Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa would be massively relevant here (rape, kidnap and imprisonment, stealing – one of the best villains in eighteenth century literature, because he is so well rounded, you understand the hell out of him yet still, he cannot be saved), and Henry Fielding’s more famous and rollicking Tom Jones…I won’t be. I had to confine myself due to strict word limit, to the books I mention in the subject title. And I’ve not done any extra research for this rewrite – I’ve just Blackberry Juniper’ed it somewhat, and rendered it slightly conversational more than academic (whilst retaining the footnotes).
Also, I really fancied doing something educational, historical and book based, after all the modern TV and books I’ve been looking at the last year or so.
Lastly – oi!!!, students who found this via searching the net! Don’t think about nicking this for your uni homework unless you reference me, and drop me a comment to tell me you’ve done so – its mine – blood, sweat and tears wrote the original stuffy dreadful document back in 2004 – I’ve got ownership of the original doc lodged with the Open University and I’ve left enough of the original intact that plagiarism will be noted across any national databases, as well as the footnotes pattern! Beware!
ABSTRACT – how the issues are relevant to Roxana, Amelia and Cecilia
The economy and social order in what was not quite yet the United Kingdom as we know it today, were in transition in the eighteenth century. Each of the heroines of the 3 books engages with the new economic realities of credit and debt, business and charity: all of which were changed by the emergent market economy. I’ll show you their experiences through abandonment, marriage and singlehood – noting that each woman experiences an absolute dependency on the issue of whether their fate and their personal finances are theirs to control. In this context, money is THE issue for each woman, despite differing circumstances.
Roxana is shown to be vastly successful financially but to pay a terrible personal cost. Adrift from her class and gender moorings as a result of being abandoned by her husband, and with several children to support, she is catapulted through dire need into a decision to become a prostitute. This leads her to a discovery that she is extremely adept at managing and increasing her money. She confuses this success with happiness for a while, but gradually slides into increasing personal ruthlessness; leading to her to collude in the possible murder of one of her own children (there’s a reason for that, its not just a cut throat decision). The growth of the market economy and its harsh effect on females (for this activity is societally designated male) who try to take part in its more lucrative aspects is sadly shown by the eventual fate of Roxana.
The market economy brought with it possibilities both for incredible wealth – and serious debt. Amelia is the wife of hapless ex-soldier Booth, who is unable to manage his family’s money at all. The effects on Amelia, as a conduct-book perfect example of what a wife was considered to be at the time, are serious. Booth is imprisoned several times, for debt, leaving Amelia at the mercy of self-serving and rapacious ‘friends’. The corrupt public sphere, which Amelia is eventually forced to enter, is a dangerous place for a woman – she is unprotected by a man, and consequently, her presence can be (and is) misinterpreted to her detriment. Amelia ventures out from the private sphere only once in any real way, and despite a vital action that saves both the family’s financial future and takes control of her own presentation as the Ideal Wife, she retreats again immediately, content with her small gains.
Cecilia fights a terrible battle to remain exactly where she is to begin with (a single heiress with modest dreams of philanthropy), and fails badly. Though she begins an heiress, this apparent advantage does nothing to guarantee her any form of meaningful autonomy and control of her life – or her finances. She is plagued throughout the book, by debts entered into as acts of mercy toward others; which skew her original philanthropic monetary intentions. At the same time, she is pursued by both fortune hunters and her own guardians – all of whom are convinced the she (as the repository of her fortune) should be under their (male) control. She is seen as a vehicle for the ambitions of men, and despite her common sense and good nature, is eventually stripped of her entire fortune and left as an adjunct to a male: just a wife, no money, no personal choice or independence.
I’ll show you that love entanglements complicate each of these women’s financial fate, linking to the prevailing doctrine of the time for private and public spheres – and which gender should be in each. I conclude that money is part of a wider discourse of female negotiation of their culturally assigned zones. Its use and manipulation is part of an attempt to free themselves from class and gender signifiers. However, this transition to more freedom for women was underway, but by no means established as anything remotely the norm – these novels show a public attitude in both of the men that wrote, and the female that experienced, of what happens when you push out from the private (home) to the public (work and commerce) sphere. It’s dangerous. Many women lost everything.
“Money, like the weather,” suggests period historian Edward Copeland, “is the one topic of which every novel [of the 18th century] has an opinion.” Its true, I did find, from my extensive reading of 18th century novels, that matters of personal finance relating especially to female principal protagonists was rife – much moreso than about even 50 years previous.
I decided to use the 3 novels noted (Roxana, Amelia, Cecilia) because I think they show detailed representations of financial concerns running the course of the century: from early, to middle, to late, respectively. Each of the 3 novels relentlessly defines its heroine in financial terms. The vagaries of their finances test their limits and create their future fate.
Let’s examine the growth of the market economy in the 18th century more – it’s key here (and will be discussed in depth in the Roxana section – coming up next post in this series). Andrew Varney believes that this was the single largest factor affecting presentation of characters in fiction written in this period, with Daniel Defoe at the vanguard of showing protagonists “negotiating their lives in the flux of money transitions and exchanges”. Defoe chose to engage his fiction with these realities, creating Roxana as a heroine in a pivotal moment in history: an economic individualist, a wife, a mother, a prostitute. I’ll explain in her section how she deals with these conflicting roles (mostly by sublimating that of mother, as it conflicts the most with the rest). I’ll show also how she amasses great wealth on her psychological journey. And that though she is completely driven by financial imperatives, she suffers from increasing qualms, paranoia, and a lack of ability to engage in personal relationships of any depth. Varney notes that this “new culture of cash, credit and investment business” was a form of “social disordering” – especially for women. The clash of roles becomes too great for her: leading to the likely murder of one of her own children, who nearly exposes her earlier job as prostitute. Finally she is brought low again – and whilst from the way he tells her story, I do not think Defoe meant this ending to condemn her, I think it does serve as a reminder of what could happen to an enterprising and clever female who pushes the bounds of the then male world too far. He couldn’t let her not suffer for her actions…
Amelia is an altogether different kind of heroine. Much put upon by her feckless husband, though an idealised loving wife. The novel is essentially the story of Amelia’s married life, and concerns her family’s fall into debt and increasing penury. Her husband is repeatedly imprisoned in debtor’s gaol, witnessing “phantasmagoric sequence[s] of judicial malpractice and criminal misery”. The scenes of Amelia trying to cope frugally, alone – and those of Booth, discovering that prison life can be very expensive, are analysed in depth, showing the complete control of money issues over the life of the couple. In addition, in his periods of freedom, Amelia is practically held ransom by her husband’s inability to manage money at all. In the end, it does fall to her to save the family from poverty and the snares of their so-called friends. Her subsequent retiring to the country, gratefully and quietly, feels contrived by the author – and has been noted as such by several critics and commentators. James Thompson observes that if all writers in the eighteenth century, Fielding most consistently “imagined domestic space as a haven in a heartless world”, adding that he rigorously places “disturbing or disruptive matters such as politics, money, property [and] wage labour” as “nondomestic and disposed of elsewhere”. I’ll examine how Fielding suggests the corruption of ‘elsewhere’ may be dealt with: unearthing ambiguous results. The danger of the city environment compared with the country, is highlighted (another social norm of the time, idealising the country and its ‘traditional values’ over the newer town and its temptations and degradations). This makes the removal of the Booths to the country a necessity for long-term happiness and financial security – that would seem normal to the readers of the time, those accepting the status quo, and Fielding seems to have felt secure in himself that this was the ‘right’ ending for Amelia.
Whilst Amelia’s problems are at base caused by a lack of money, Cecilia’s are caused by an excess of it. Catherine Keohane notes the reason: “Cecilia struggles to meet her social duties – struggling not for a lack of means, but due to complications induced by the normalization of debtedness”.
Does that ring a 21st century bell for anyone…?? The debt system as we know it now: loans, debt collectors, bailiffs, debts being sold on to other people etc – has existed since early Elizabethan times – but debt as our age really knows it, came into its own in the eighteenth century. Only with the ending of debtors’ prisons in the late Victorian era, though they persisted in one form or other by other names into the early 20th century; did things materially change. But other than debtors prison, even comfortable middle class families were no stranger to debt and the debt system, from the earliest eighteenth century.
Cecilia is completely concerned with financial issues, namely debt, charity and inheritance complications (this last later echoed in Dicken’s wonderful overkill on the subject, Bleak House of 1853). Cecilia is an extremely rich heiress. However, in order to marry, she must find a husband willing to accept her maiden name or she loses all her fortune (fiendish). Whilst the premise sounds a little reminiscent of a fairy tale, the events that overcome Cecilia end up more like nightmare. She is surrounded by rapacious characters in a dangerous urban environment. She cannot trust even those supposed to be her guardians. She loses an entire section of her fortune in misguided attempts to help others by paying their debts. Her attempts at controlling her own money are repeatedly frustrated, resulting in more and more of it being spent, until on her marriage – to an impoverished aristocrat who refuses to give up his name – she loses what remains. Emotional strain of all the conflicting demands and lack of control over her own fate, despite much striving, causes her to have a breakdown. The aftermath of this seems to leave her shrunken somehow, in both aspirations and lifestyle – and in an echo of Defoe’s consignment of Roxana to irreversible poverty, Cecilia is left in a quiet world of broken dreams and conventionality. Margaret Anne Doody, an eminent Burney scholar, believes the crux of the novel is the heroine’s “confrontation of the problem of when and how she should act for herself”, and that this is deliberately left unresolved. I would agree.
Issues of independence from the private sphere and from male financial control unite all 3 novels. While Roxana becomes a mistress of speculative investment, both Amelia and Cecilia suffer the consequences of credit and debt – though it can be argued Roxana pays for her skill in lump-sum, at the close of the book. The lives of all 3 women are entirely dictated by the conflict between the choices they made in love, and the harsh realities of financial necessity. Copeland puts it succinctly: “the economic lives of women in the novels emerge as part of a general picture of women’s economic disability”. The ways they deal with these conflicts provides the meat for analysis, as each woman has differing circumstances.
However, I hope to show they all share a common financial burden: though all strive for control, only the heroine that willingly relinquishes it – Amelia – really has any long term success and actual happiness within her marriage: in the eighteenth century, it seems authors were not yet able to allow their heroines to have both love and personal financial control. That battle continued to be fought through the nineteenth century.
Next part of this series: Roxana and the Culture of Trade – “Expert in it, as any She-Merchant”…Next month sometime, this will come. Hope you found the introductory section useful, history and lit lovers.
 Don’t you just love that sentence? It does make sense but you have to read it twice. That’s academic writing for you! And just the sort of thing I'll be talking about in my Things That Annoy Me upcoming post!
 Edward Copeland, Women Writing About Money: Women’s Fiction in England, 1790-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.7.
 Andrew Varney, Eighteenth Century Writers in Their World (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1999), pp.65, 68.
 Varney, p.68.
 Claude Rawson, ‘Henry Fielding,’ in the Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth Century Fiction, ed. John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.120-152 (p.126).
 James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p.22.
 Catherine Keohane, ‘“Too Neat For A Beggar”: Charity and Debt in Burney’s Cecilia’, in Studies in the Novel, 33 (2001), pp.379-401 (p.380).
 Margaret Anne Doody, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1988), p.113.
 Copeland, p.1.