- Women Writing About Money: Women’s Fiction in England, 1790–1820, and: Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s—Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen
Scholarly work in eighteenth-century studies most enlightens and unsettles us when the disciplines gather and cross-pollinate. Both Edward Copeland and Claudia L. Johnson are brilliantly interdisciplinary critics, the one drawing on the current work in the history of consumption to illuminate his readings of popular literature, and the other monitoring the complexities of political and imaginative definitions of gender, and applying them to the women listed in her subtitle. Copeland and Johnson also share the fact that Jane Austen is the template against which they measure the other writers. Copeland says that when he first embarked on his project, he envisioned it as culminating in a study of money in Jane Austen. He planned to read the “lesser fry” (2) only as background. Eventually, he discovered that there was a mutually engrossing “conversation” among the writers of the three levels of fiction: the “carriage trade,” the “didactic trade,” and the books “directed to the lower ranks of the middle class with the Minerva novel leading the way” (6; 161). Copeland’s book, then, eavesdrops on that conversation. Johnson, though staying with the carriage trade throughout, still discovers that the conversation of women writers with Austen is the most meaningful, and her last essay argues that Emma constitutes a revision of the sentimental view of women—and more particularly of men—that Burke and other male writers promulgated in the 1790s.
To read Copeland is to enter a world one had always been dimly aware of but had never penetrated. It is a world of excess, with too much material wealth available and extravagant emotions generated in the getting and spending of it. With the work of John Brewer and others, the panoply of economic change has become increasingly visible, but Copeland is the first to assemble its plots and to discuss the many pictures by which it was represented (there are twenty-six illustrations, chiefly woodcuts from The Lady’s Magazine). Copeland provides specificity [End Page 235] where vagueness has reigned: he gives a list of incomes, ranging from £25 to £5,000 and up, indicating the life they would provide; and he includes a graph analyzing the narratives in The Lady’s Magazine, showing that between 1793 and 1815 two plots decrease in frequency and three others increase. Plots where there is “parental pressure to marry” or an “impoverished heroine saved by marriage” have totally vanished by 1815, and have been replaced by plots where women put up with bad husbands, become themselves breadwinners for the family, or keep excellent accounts (63). Decade by decade the illustrations in The Lady’s Magazine show women gaining authority: in 1788, for instance, an American Indian saves a lady by shooting a lion; in 1802 she shoots it herself. In 1807 a woman saves her brother from indigence and death; in 1812 her benevolence becomes a more public action, and she saves a stranger.
Because of the rapid inflation that started in the 1790s, Copeland points out, fears of sudden financial calamity plagued women. Men, too, worried, but for women of all classes fewer kinds of employment were available. Myriad books were published combining Gothic terror and economic anxiety. Eliza Parsons, one of the most persistent writers of what Copeland dubs “Business Gothic” (45), is an indefatigable Minerva writer. Yet she applied for help to the Royal Literary Fund, even though she had “written 65 vols of Novels” in twelve years to support her family after her husband’s turpentine warehouse burned down. The Fund was founded in the 1790s to help destitute writers, and quotations from letters to the fund provide some of Copeland’s most moving details. Indeed, the economic situation for women...