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The Vulgar Question of Money

Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James

Elsie B. Michie

Publication Year: 2011

It is a familiar storyline in nineteenth-century English novels: a hero must choose between money and love, between the wealthy, materialistic, status-conscious woman who could enhance his social position and the poorer, altruistic, independent-minded woman whom he loves. Elsie B. Michie explains what this common marriage plot reveals about changing reactions to money in British culture. It was in the novel that writers found space to articulate the anxieties surrounding money which developed along with the rise of capitalism in nineteenth-century England. Michie focuses in particular on the character of the wealthy heiress and how she, unlike her male counterparts, represents the tensions in British society between the desire for wealth and advancement and the fear that economic development would blur the traditional boundaries of social classes. Michie explores how novelists of the period captured with particular vividness England’s ambivalent emotional responses to its own financial successes and engaged questions identical to those raised by political economists and moral philosophers. Each chapter reads a novelist alongside a contemporary thinker, tracing the development of capitalism in Britain: Jane Austen and Adam Smith and the rise of commercial society, Frances Trollope and Thomas Robert Malthus and industrialism, Anthony Trollope and Walter Bagehot and the political influence of money, Margaret Oliphant and John Stuart Mill and professionalism and managerial capitalism, and Henry James and Georg Simmel and the shift of economic dominance from England to America. Even the great romantic novels of the nineteenth century cannot disentangle themselves from the vulgar question of money. Michie’s fresh reading of the marriage plot, and the choice between two women at its heart, shows it to be as much about politics and economics as it is about personal choice.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. vii

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Preface: Vulgarity, Wealth, and Gender

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pp. ix-xiii

When I began working on this book it had become the fashion to introduce academic papers by telling personal anecdotes—a custom initiated, I think, by the epilogue to Renaissance Self-Fashioning, in which Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of sitting next to a man on a plane who is going to visit his hospitalized son who has lost the ability to speak and the will to live. I used to begin the papers that eventually ...

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pp. xv-17

In thanking the many people who have helped me bring The Vulgar Question of Money to fruition, I have to begin with my colleague Robert Hamm, who has read more drafts of these chapters than anyone should. My other writing groups, which consisted of Daniel Novak, Sharon Weltman, and Pallavi Rastogi and Jacob Berman, Lauren Coats, and Matt Sandler, were also key in helping me finish the book. ...

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Introduction Rich Woman / Poor Woman: An Anthropology of the Nineteenth-Century Marriage Plot

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pp. 1-25

This book explores one of the most common marriage plots in the nineteenth-century English novel: the story of a hero positioned between a wealthy, materialistic, status-conscious woman who might enhance his social position and a poorer, more altruistic, and psychologically independent woman who is the antipode of her rich rival. This bifurcated narrative structure emerges with particular clarity in ...

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1. Social Distinction in Jane Austen

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pp. 26-64

Austen’s plots intertwine what Walter Benn Michaels has famously called romance and real estate. They tell stories of courtship, but those stories are as much about the psychological stances needed to confront the engrossments of wealth as they are about love. They combine economic and romantic concerns by contrasting a negatively depicted rich woman with the novels’ romantic heroines. Through her ...

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2. Frances Trollope and the Problem of Appetite

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pp. 65-102

Though Frances Trollope was only four years older than Austen and grew up in an almost identical social environment, the later novelist did not begin her writing career until the 1830s, a period when England’s dramatic economic expansion as a result of industrialism was fostering a set of cultural anxieties wholly different from the ones addressed in Austen’s novels.1 In the world as it is represented in ...

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3. Anthony Trollope’s “Subtle Materialism”

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pp. 102-141

As we move from Frances Trollope to her son Anthony, we shift to a world where money has become an abstract force. This representational change reflects the economic developments that took place between the 1830s and ’40s when Frances Trollope was writing and the 1860s and ’70s when her son’s career took off. In that period, England ceased to be primarily a manufacturing economy and became ...

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4. Margaret Oliphant and the Professional Ideal

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pp. 142-178

With the novels of Margaret Oliphant, the marriage plot ceases to work as a deep structure that drives the novel’s romances. Oliphant’s characters, as well as her narrators, prove ironically conscious of their involvement in plots whose ideological implications are not only clear to them but also capable of being reversed. We see the beginning of this ironic awareness in Anthony Trollope’s novels and ...

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5. Henry James and the End(s) of the Marriage Plot

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pp. 179-215

In the middle of the preface to The Golden Bowl James describes the anxiety he felt about having to revise his own work when he was preparing the New York edition, explaining that he came to terms with that process by thinking about the meaning of the word “revise.” He reminded himself that “to revise is to see, or to look over, again—which means in the case of a written thing neither more nor less than to ...

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Afterword: From Pemberley to Manderley

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pp. 216-222

The idea that the pattern I have been tracing here comes to an end with the late novels of Henry James makes sense if, as I posit in the introduction, we read the marriage plot as a literary structure that parallels the rise and fall of British economic dominance. In James’s late novels, the heiresses are typically Americans. That representational shift reflects the fact that in James’s period America was replacing ...


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pp. 223-276


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pp. 277-292


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pp. 293-303

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402321
E-ISBN-10: 1421402327
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421401867
Print-ISBN-10: 142140186X

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700427
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Vulgar Question of Money

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Subject Headings

  • Material culture in literature.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Material culture -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Money in literature.
  • Great Britain -- Social life and customs -- 19th century.
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