Elsie B. Michie. The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4214-0186-7. Price: US$70.00[Notice]

  • Jenny Bourne Taylor

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  • Jenny Bourne Taylor
    University of Sussex

Elsie Michie’s thought-provoking study is concerned with one of the most pervasive plot elements of the nineteenth-century novel of manners, in which a status-conscious, materialist, rich woman is pitted against a virtuous, altruistic poor one, posing many economic and emotional dilemmas for the hero who has to choose between them. Michie discusses how the terms of this opposition shift through the nineteenth century, and considers what these changes imply for the meanings and uses of wealth and money in the novel. Her focus is on the rich woman herself—the “symbolic lynchpin” (1)—who embodies the materialism that the hero must reject. “I put money, vulgarity, and disgust first rather than introducing them as afterthoughts,” Michie stresses, casting a new light on “the way the relationship between gender, property, desire, and exchange have typically been understood to operate in the novel” (3). These are large claims, and to develop her case Michie is necessarily selective; but in tracing the process from Jane Austen to Henry James, via Frances Trollope, Anthony Trollope, and Margaret Oliphant—all key figures in the development of domestic realism—she elaborates a fascinating literary history. Her Introduction reworks the triangular model, set out by Gail Rubin and developed by Eve Sedgwick, in which the woman is placed between two men, by drawing on Lacan’s idea (suggested by Freud’s Rat Man case) of a quartet—a four-sided psychic structure in which the Oedipal pattern is complicated by the splitting of the male subject’s object of desire into two counterpoised women. Michie historicizes this formation by placing it within nineteenth-century economic and anthropological discourses which linked issues of property to structures of marriage and kinship. The heiress poses a threat to normative systems of exchange in which women are traded exogamously, and needs to be reassimilated through endogamous marriage in order to keep wealth within the group. At the same time she embodies “engrossment” (11), the ostentation of wealth—a position, Michie argues, that is renegotiated through nineteenth-century fiction as money and the structures of capital become increasingly disembodied. Michie traces this process by linking each of her five novelists, some more explicitly than others, to roughly contemporary political economists: Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Walter Bagehot, J.S. Mill, and Georg Simmel, in a series of pairings which is always productive, if occasionally (in the case of Oliphant and Mill) slightly unconvincing. Reading Austen in relation to Smith’s concern about how to live morally in a commercial society surrounded by the corrupting influences of wealth, she traces how the wealthy woman is gradually given a subtler and more complex role. In Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Sense and Sensibility (1811), figures such as Mrs. John Dashwood, Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine de Bourgh display a caricatured kind of engrossment in contrast to more virtuous wealthy men; in Manfield Park (1814) Mary Crawford, though set against the virtuous Fanny Price, has far more wit and intelligence and is shown as actively formed by her environment; while in Emma (1815) the wealthy heroine experiences a revolution in consciousness as she comes to internalize Smith’s concept of sympathy. Frances Trollope is read alongside Malthus’s theory of appetite, and his deployment of bodily metaphors to describe violent economic fluctuations, together with George Combe’s model of the economy of the body. Wealthy women are associated with appetite and insatiability, and with the desire for commodities that drive the economy in Frances Trollope’s fiction. The Widow Barnaby’s “sublime vulgarity” (72) and excessive appetite sexualize the fluctuations of the market in the 1840 novel of that name; Sophia, the diminutive heroine of The Ward of Thorpe-Combe (1842), deceptively performs ...

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