Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century Novel, Part 6:
Amelia, Section 3
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).
Last section, I continued the story of Amelia, heroine of Fielding’s book of the same name – the perfect wife by the mores of the time, who because of an inept husband, falls into financial troubles. The first part of her story was all about how that happened, and debtor’s prison. The next part of my analysis of her story, showed her journey as a woman in an alien financial world of the 1800s, burgeoning free market capitalism, how she navigated its many pitfalls. Now its time to wind up her part of this essay. Since her husband is in prison, and she is surrounded on all sides by charlatans and false friends – how on earth are we to provide her with a happy ending for them both? And one where, moreover, she retains her virtue?! Read on…
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.
=> the first part of Amelia’s experiences: her husband is put in debtor’s prison.
=> how Amelia survives as a married woman but without protection for herself and her children, in a cruel and corrupt city.
Welcome to part 3 (last part) of my analysis of Amelia – the last novel written by Henry Fielding, 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 eventually Amelia passively manages to save the day – and how, we’ll go into here. It’s a real eye opener to the attitudes of the times, and just how few choices women had when men weren’t in the picture.
***This link courtesy:
In these early stages of the growth of the mercantile capitalist economy, critics have noted that middle class women became limited to roles that were not only constricting in spatial and economic terms (within the private sphere of the home), but in terms of sexuality as well. Roxana, as we have seen, turned the tables on sexual perceptions of women, using these roles for her own ends. It is much less obvious that Amelia would use the image of middle class women as “passive consumers, display pieces and erotic objects” to her own advantage. Nevertheless in a pivotal moment in the novel, this is exactly what she does. After Atkinson’s declaration of love, Amelia realises she has only one thing left to pawn, to save the family from financial ruin: the miniature of herself that Sergeant Atkins stole, and now returns to her. Her act of going to pawn the miniature of herself, shows Amelia “[…] taking herself to market”, re-determining her own value, and thus helping to save her family’s future and get them out of any further violence that London could inflict on them. Fielding describes, with irony, her image’s evaluation at the hands of the pawnbroker:
The intrinsic value of the gold, in which this picture was set, and of the little diamonds which surrounded it, amounted to nine guineas. This therefore was advanced to her; and the prettiest face in the world (such is often the fate of beauty) was deposited, as of no value into the bargain. (p.495).
An example of an eighteenth century miniature, here sourced from pinterest.
It is here that the clash between private and public spheres becomes most strained. It seems that by going out into the world and pawning an image of herself (even though this image celebrates her status as virtuous woman), that Amelia is in danger of having her virtue sullied by the “taint of commercial transactions”. This action however, shows a desperation to protect her family that leads to the pawnbroker’s shrewd evaluation of her own worth – in which it turns out that it is how she is framed that is worth more (ahh, little changes, eh?). In having the scene of Amelia at the pawnshop (pp.495-6) follow so closely on the scene of Atkinson declaring love (p.490), it is as if “Amelia is banking on the response that her looks have elicited in Atkinson when she takes her portrait to the pawn shop”. The fact that Amelia has the presence of mind to calculate her own worth and manage to be paid for the presentation of it, without tarnish to her reputation, is testament to her ingenuity. The reason why it works is that Amelia is the object of “numerous” and conflicting “valuations”. People compete over her because “she brings together a competitive public and an affective private value by embodying a secured object of competition that deserves an unflagging affection”. (In other words, you want what you can’t have and the grass is always greener.) In this safe and limited way, Amelia has managed to come out of the private sphere sufficiently to ensure the continued financial viability of her family, avoiding the confusion of ‘slippage’ in her moral value against which Conway cautioned in my last post (see the index at the top).
Gambling was endemic in the eighteenth century, and mostly unregulated, it would have been easy for Booth to fall foul of the idea of Lady Luck. (This image sourced from mikerendell.com)
However, it is Booth who needs to rearrange his moral values in the long run, as Amelia can only do so much to shore up the situation against the almost inevitable ruin into which Booth will precipitate them if left unchecked. Amelia has always had her strong religious beliefs to bolster her, whereas Fielding has made it clear that Booth is labouring under a misapprehension, namely:
That a larger share of misfortunes had fallen to his lot than he had merited; and this led him […] into a disadvantageous opinion of providence. […] that every man acted merely from the force of that passion which was uppermost in his mind, and could do no otherwise. (pp.23-24)
It is this belief in his own innocence and non-culpability, his conviction that he can do no other than follow every whim, with no discipline (of either philosophy or religion), that have caused him to fall into the debt and other entanglements he exposes his family to. At the altar of this misapprehension can be laid: his thoughtless gaming (p.438), feeble attempts at bribery for preferment (p.457 and 481), as well as the troublesome affair with Miss Matthews, that almost causes his death by duelling at the hand of one of his ‘friends’, Colonel James, who has also fallen under Miss Matthews spell. The only reason this fails, is that another of his ‘friends’, Trent, has him arrested for debt (p.499-501). He is finally ‘cured’ of his irresponsibility when he “discards the false doctrine that men act from their predominant passion, and its corollary that moral struggle is futile”. Furthermore, he has to stop thinking that his errors resulted more from his impecunious situation than from any inherent weakness of judgement.
Williams argues that “Fielding portrayed [Booth] in the vise of circumstances”. Booth’s utter uselessness in the outside world have led critics to misjudge his entire personality, but as Angela Smallwood has pointed out, Booth has always been a good and liberal husband where matters financial were not concerned – and that his “ability to feel for Amelia in the distress he imposes on her […] maintain the orientation of his nature toward goodness”. Booth’s encounter with “the law make [him] realize that both satisfaction and power lie within the circumscribed sphere of family life where bands of affection remain intact”. It may be that Brittain Williams is correct when she suggests that for each of his three imprisonments, Booth has learned something, and this may account for his somewhat abrupt religious conversion after reading Barrow’s Sermons. Brittain Williams describes him encountering a different philosophical position in a conversation with an inmate in each incarceration, each time learning something he can use to become a better man and a more responsible husband. This may be true, but these learning encounters are also an example of Fielding’s being inclined to allow Providence begin its actions: after Amelia’s pivotal act of taking her destiny under her control, followed by Booth’s sudden reform, the scene is set for a happy ending for the couple.
The sudden restoration of the money out of which Amelia was swindled near the beginning of the novel (by a rather unlikely coincidental meeting), and the couple’s earnestly desired relocation to the countryside, leave some uncomfortable questions for readers about limitations and dependency. Michael Irwin suggests that it underlines the fact that Amelia is a story of “love and money” (and what wasn’t in those days if aimed at female readership – practicalities were all survival was about…). Money is earned: but ‘gentlemen’ cannot earn, as society is too corrupt, as Booth discovers to his cost; so Fielding simply helps his protagonists escape London (the worst of society). Money can only ever aid escape from corruption, not fix the corruption itself. If that is the case, moral virtue is the strongest weapon against corruption. Indeed, Fielding also implies that “perfect virtue is unassailable”, as Amelia survives what Mrs Bennet does not. So “the ethics of self-preservation in a corrupt society are left unclear”.
Though this is an early 19th century example of a 'rural idyll', it shows all the elements that townies, now nostalgic for a countryside their parents/ grandparents were forced to abandon to look for work invested in the dream that became - and for many of us urbanites, still is... The Countryside. The peace, the tranquility - the odd way that it all looks very clean! (This image from denzilgrant.wordpress.com)
Booth has a very weak grasp on moral virtue (as we have argued), and the implication is that without both Amelia’s influence and removal from the site of temptation, he and others like him will not survive uncorrupted. This is an important point. Irwin is not the only critic to feel uncomfortable with the abruptly executed happy ending for the Booths, and Malvin Zirker notes the retrograde aspect of going to live in the country at the end, which is on one sense “the abnegation of the modern commercial world” – the couple could not survive in modern reality, you could say. Booth had to go into the country, as there was a danger “of moral recidivism”.
Several critics have suggested that Robinson was meant to be seen as Booth’s double: though he reforms, he stays in the city and then relapses into his old ways, hung eventually as a highwayman. In Robinson’s fate, Fielding warns against the dangerous temptations of the city. Thus this implies that Booth survives despite his many travails, because he has the private sphere strongly behind him (and a means of escape to a place where he can concentrate on it) – whereas poor Robinson, who only had himself to rely on, succumbed to the many public sphere temptations, as there was nothing else in his life.
Liz Bellamy reads the ending of Amelia in a rather negative and passive light, viewing the whole action of the novel as being a play on Amelia’s name: simply a move toward an ‘amelioration’ of circumstances. Richard A. Rosengarten concurs with this view of the ending as a retreat. He sees the running away to the country at the end of the book as exactly that, seeming to forget that the Booths were catapulted to London in the first place not be choice but by financial necessity. Once the necessary evil of a stay in the city is no longer a consideration, Fielding returns his characters to their original setting: the innocent and uncorrupted countryside. Samuel L. Macey believes that Fielding subscribes to an Austen-like ‘realism’: he wants his protagonists to end up happily married in the country, living good and simple lives. He points out that Fielding never loses sight of the need for “a sufficient competence” and “the highly realistic monetary requirement of providing the funds to make such a promising outcome possible”.
What Fielding intended by this ending is not clear, and whilst I am inclined to believe the booths removed themselves to a site of greater defensibility for Booth’s weak moral state, I am also inclined to view this as a victory for Amelia and her command of the private sphere. Though she was at a serious disadvantage throughout the novel, dependent on a man she adored but who was hapless, she nevertheless turned the situation around to her own advantage, as the pattern of life they are living by the end, is one of her design: “nothing could equal the serenity of their lives” (p545).
In the next part of this long essay, I shall focus on a novel in which the female protagonist is forced (like the Booths), into the city and experiences, like them, a range of severe difficulties. Unlike the Booths however, Cecilia is both single, and in receipt of a huge inheritance. In Fielding’s novel, it was made to seem that if only they had money, this would cure all their problems; but in Burney’s novel, Cecilia finds that money is her worst burden and almost wrecks her life…
Until next time!
 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.174.
 James Thompson, ‘Patterns of Property and Possession in Fielding’s Fiction’, in Eighteenth Century Fiction, Vol. III, No.1, October 1990, pp.21-42 (p.155)
 John P. Zomchick, Family and the Law in Eighteenth Century Fiction: The Public Conscience in the Private Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.132.
 Alison Conway, Private Interests: Women, Portraiture, and the Visual Culture of the English Novel, 1709-1791 (Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p.148.
 Zomchick, p.132.
 Muriel Brittain Williams, Marriage: Fielding’s Mirror of Morality (Alabama: University of Alabama press, 1973), p.98. The ‘predominant passion’ was a notion present in society since the concept of Greek humours had become fashionable, but had recently been popularised by Pope, poet and satirist.
 Brittain Williams, p.111.
 Booth’s behaviour falls into the liberal husband type described by Lawrence Stone as an integral part of an eighteenth century “companionate marriage”. The sort of husband who values his wife’s opinion and both consults and listens to her views. Stone describes these marriages as love matches, where the power distribution is not equal, but there is less emphasis on wifely obedience. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (London: Penguin, this edn. 1979), p.218-9.
 Zomchick, p.133. Beth Swan argues that Booth did not learn as much from the law, as from Amelia’s attitude, her “consistently holding the moral high ground”. Beth Swan, Fictions of Law (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1997), p.186.
 Angela J. Smallwood, Fielding and the Woman Question: The Novels of Henry Fielding and the Feminist Debate, 1700-1750 (New York: St. Martin’s Press/ Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p.169.
 Brittain Williams, pp.111-114.
 Michael Irwin, Henry Fielding: The Tentative Realist (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1967), p.132.
 Malvin Zirker, Fielding’s Social Pamphlets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 139.
 Zomchick, p.152.
 John Richetti, The English Novel in History, 1700-1780 (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.153.
 Liz Bellamy, Commerce, Morality and the Eighteenth Century Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.89.
 Richard A. Rosengarten, Henry Fielding and the Narrative of Providence: Divine Design and the Incursions of Evil (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p.94.
 Samuel L. Macey, Money and the Novel: Mercenary Motivation in Defoe and His Immediate Successors (Victoria, British Colombia: Sono Nis Press, 1983), pp. 144-5.