In Economic Woman: Demand, Gender, and Narrative Closure in Eliot and Hardy
, Deanna Kreisel contributes to recent scholarship concerned with the relations between political economy and Victorian novels from a fresh angle. Kreisel returns to a mid-century moment we have generally characterized as confident in the wisdom and efficacy of laissez-faire policy. There, she recovers the influence of major economic theorists from Thomas Malthus to John Ruskin, as well as popular essayists and novelists, possessed by a “mistrust of the self-adjusting properties of the young capitalist economy,” and argues that this mistrust was the “corollary and impetus” of the demand theory of value that we have tended to date later in the century (4). Setting aside the labor theory of value to trace early manifestations of demand theory within classical political economy, Kreisel describes the fear that the economy was doomed to stagnate or self-destruct when excessive supply would ultimately flood a market of insufficient demand. Kreisel argues that the “discarded, supplemental, disturbing, and radical discourse of consumer demand” (12) that can be seen in full flower in marginal utility theory and the new ‘historical school’ post-1870 is precisely the discourse that can help us make new sense of problems of closure in Hardy and Eliot’s novels. These problems of closure and breakdowns of internal novelistic logic hinge, Kreisel argues, on instances of transgressive female sexuality, themselves inseparable from ‘improper’ economic activities and attitudes dramatized in the novels. As this description indicates, Kreisel’s study is a complex and ambitious one, dealing with three major nodes: political economy, ideas of gender, and matters of closure. Kreisel establishes the links among these categories mainly via metaphor, beginning, for example, and frequently returning to Ruskin’s description of the hoarder as a “‘money-chest with a slit in it, not only receptional but suctional, set in the public thoroughfare’” (4). Fair enough to say that this evokes the prostitute. For Kreisel, this passage becomes one important basis for considering the relationship between perverse economic management and femininity, as well as closure (since Ruskin’s quotation turns to matters of Chance and Death). The alternative to the hoarding prostitute is the nurturant and maternal female body, with a natural and “free-flowing supply of fluid sustenance” (10). Hoarding versus circulation, the end of capitalism embodied in female monstrosity versus a healthful balance of supply and demand, are embodied by the opposition between prostitute and wife and mother. “Economic woman,” suggests Kreisel, may be described as an idealized model of feminine sexual restraint and wise domestic management, shadowed by the degraded prostitute whose sexual excesses and economic mismanagement threaten nothing less than the stability of the capitalist economy. While Kreisel provides a very long (fifty page-plus) introductory chapter on contemporary economic thought, she is at her best in the thick of the study’s novels: George Eliot’s Adam Bede
(1859) and The Mill on the Floss
(1860), and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge
(1886) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles
(1891). Kreisel positions Hetty and Maggie, the sacrificed figures of Eliot’s mid-career novels, as emblems of problematic consumption and desire, convincingly reading Adam Bede
’s hierarchical agrarian society, one organized around principles of even correspondence and barter, as an economic prehistory to the world of The Mill on the Floss
, which is characterized by usury, credit, interest, surplus capital, surfeit, and excess. Adam Bede
, Kreisel argues, is a novel in search of balance and stability, in retreat from excess or its inevitable consequence, waste. Hetty’s immoderate desires are the signs of a profligate and degenerate aristocracy (which stands in for the modern credit economy), whereas Dinah’s moderate desires ...
Ilana Blumberg is Associate Professor of Humanities at James Madison College, Michigan State University. She is author of Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels (Ohio State UP, 2013) and Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books (U Nebraska P, 2007), winner of the Sami Rohr Choice Award.