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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 602-605



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Book Review

Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel

Authorship, Commerce, and Gender in Early Eighteenth-Century England

Women and Property in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel

Women's Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation


Liz Bellamy. Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. vii + 223. $59.95 cloth.

Catherine Ingrassia. Authorship, Commerce, and Gender in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. xi + 230. $59.95 cloth.

April London. Women and Property in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. ix + 262. $59.95 cloth.

Jacqueline Pearson. Women's Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. x + 300. $59.95 cloth.

For eighteenth-century conservatives, the literary marketplace was a notorious contradiction in terms. Even critics who were more disposed to view it through the lens of progress frequently approached it with some ambivalence. Responses to it [End Page 602] were mediated by a complex symbolic economy grounded in a cluster of terms--masculinity, femininity, effeminacy--that were about a changing class structure as much as gender though they tended to dwell upon the latter. Fortunately, the tendency of eighteenth-century commentators to deal with the problem by writing about it has not abated. An increasing number of recent critics have responded in kind by tracing the discursive connections between the age's reaction to the rise of commerce, the advent of a literary modernity typified by the novel, and the changing status of women. What linked all three of these was the fact that, as Catherine Gallagher wryly puts it in Nobody's Story, they "had--literally--nothing in common" (xv). Commerce, fiction, and women circulated as reminders of the demise of foundational knowledge and morality--symptoms of the erosion of the supremacy of landed wealth and its attendant ideal of heroic masculinity.

Four recent Cambridge University Press books exemplify the sorts of analysis that this recognition has entailed. April London's Women and Property in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel explores the connections between aristocratic assumptions about property as landed wealth and mobile implications of a bourgeois society characterized by a Lockean understanding of the possibilities of self-making. London's focus on the novel, the literary form most famously associated with women, is partially a response to women's absence as a point of critical investigation in many current debates about the nature of property in the eighteenth century. Nor, as her highly nuanced analysis of canonical and less familiar novels from the middle to the end of the eighteenth century by men and women ranging across the political spectrum makes clear, is this a minor elision. Because of women's anomalous legal status--defined as property but excluded from its ownership--these texts played a crucial role as a site for the negotiation of complex ideas about the problems and possibilities of identity-making in an increasingly unstable world.

London argues convincingly that eighteenth-century novels consistently allowed women active roles as reformist agents before relocating them within a conclusion in which power is returned to the men--a double plot structure that contains an exploration of bourgeois subjectivity within the reassuring stability of civic humanism's emphasis on inherited wealth. These dynamics are reinforced by the use of georgic and pastoral conventions as ciphers for the two discursive frameworks: where the former enabled authors to make change intelligible through a recourse to a generic stress on the civilizing effects of personal industriousness, the latter offered the consoling promise of aristocratic disinterestedness in the face of what, from this perspective, seemed to be cultural decline rather than progress. The mediating role of novels as an increasingly fashionable aspect of eighteenth-century life and of women's traditional currency as metaphors for the potential dangers of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 602-605
Launched on MUSE
2000-07-01
Open Access
No
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