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  • The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James by Elsie B Michie
  • Supritha Rajan
Michie, Elsie B. The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. 303 pp. $70.00.

Taking her title from Frances Trollope’s novel The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman, Elsie B. Michie’s book examines a phenomenon that Trollope’s novel crystallizes—the repugnance felt by Victorian (and contemporary) writers, readers, and critics towards the open pursuit, accumulation, and display of wealth as an end in itself. It was precisely such behavior, according to Michie, that Victorians designated as “vulgar” in order to distance crass materialism from disinterested models of virtue, aesthetics, and taste. In examining how Victorians separated economic from noneconomic values, Michie’s book contributes to an ongoing critical dialogue on how the nineteenth century constituted aesthetic and moral value by disentangling it from the economic. But while critics such as Mary Poovey and John Guillory have explored the separation of aesthetic/moral value from economic value by providing intellectual histories of literary and economic discourses, Michie examines the latter problem through a series of fine-grained analyses of the novel of manners as it stretches from Jane Austen to Henry James.

In these rigorously argued readings, Michie offers a circumscribed history of the marriage plot in which she places “the vulgar question of money” at the forefront in order to demonstrate how notions of vulgarity structured the nineteenth-century marriage plot and established within it a polarizing set of values (97). Michie’s central contention in the book is that the novel’s representations of vulgarity responded to broader cultural anxieties regarding the impact of money on moral sentiments by gendering prurient forms of materialism in the figure of the heiress. Using Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as her paradigmatic example, Michie argues that female heiresses in Austen’s novel, such as Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine, embody the cloying materialism that the novel then contrasts to poor, virtuous heroines like Elizabeth Bennett. The traditional marriage-plot ending in which the wealthy male suitor chooses the poor, virtuous woman over her wealthy counterpart quite literally marries virtue with wealth and thus cleanses wealth of the negative connotations associated with the rich woman. The rich woman thus functions symbolically in the marriage plot as a scapegoat for the very economic motives that were becoming the engine of a growing capitalist economy.

In bringing attention to this unexamined figure within the nineteenth-century novel, Michie joins recent critics such as Kathy Alexis Psomiades, Mary Jean Corbett, and Sharon Marcus who have challenged the traditional model of heterosexual exchange, elaborated most famously in Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women,” which has dominated criticism on the marriage-plot narrative. Instead of focusing on the triangulation of a woman who is exchanged between two men, Michie proposes a “rectangular structure” that includes the rich and poor woman as two possible choices (209). Drawing on nineteenth-century anthropologists such as John Ferguson McLennan, particularly the latter’s theory of endogamy and exogamy, Michie shows how the heiress complicates the model of heterosexual exchange since she cannot enter into an exogamous marriage in which her wealth exits the group/family but must remain within an endogamous union. Hence, whether in relation to the materialistic values she represents or the model of marriage she interrupts, the heiress represents “what Lévi-Strauss calls the scandal in the system of marital exchanges. She must be included in order for the novel to establish the values that exclude her” (16). [End Page 132]

Each of the five chapters in the book explores the book’s central claims by examining three successive novels by each author, beginning first with Austen and then moving on to Frances Trollope, Anthony Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, and concluding with James. This chronological structure enables Michie to note how shifts in the nineteenth-century novel’s marriage plot “[parallel] the rise and fall of British economic dominance” (216). As a way to clarify further how the marriage plot’s...


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