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ELH 70.1 (2003) 197-221

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Ruth's Perverse Economies:
Women, Hoarding, and Expenditure

Natalka Freeland

A minor domestic scene in Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth juxtaposes two different standards of value:

After dusting the looking-glass, [Faith] suddenly stopped in her operation, and after a close inspection of herself, startled Sally by this speech:
"Sally! I'm looking a great deal older than I used to do!"
Sally, who was busy dilating on the increased price of flour, considered this remark of Miss Benson's as strangely irrelevant to the matter in hand, and only noticed it by a
"To be sure! I suppose we all on us do. But two and fourpence a dozen is too much to make us pay for it."
Miss Benson went on with her inspection of herself, and Sally with her economical projects.
"Sally!" said Miss Benson, "my hair is nearly white. The last time I looked it was only pepper-and-salt." 1

No reader is likely to believe that these parallel conversations are "irrelevant" to one another, especially once Gaskell underscores the connection by having Faith respond to Sally's comments about flour by comparing herself to "pepper-and-salt." But if scenes such as this one openly announce the commodification of women that other Victorian novels strive to disguise, they also uncover a conflict between the sexual and market economies. Unlike flour, whose price increases with scarcity, these old maids are gradually depreciating—recapitulating, in slow motion, Ruth's precipitous "fall" in market value. The unexpected parallel in the sexual marketability of these elderly virgins and the prematurely "corrupted" teenager reveals that neither removing oneself from nor participating in sexual exchange successfully navigates this volatile market. In fact, these alternatives—corresponding to hoarding on the one hand and promiscuous expenditure on the other—test the limits of a market economy, laying bare its faultlines and internal contradictions. 2 [End Page 197]

Of course, the description of women as a form of property was a timeworn trope, but it assumed particular urgency amidst the fluctuating markets and political unrest of the early nineteenth century. Protofeminists joined labor activists in borrowing the language of abolition to protest the social structures which enacted this commodification by confining "one half the human race" to domestic "slavery." 3 Friedrich Engels echoed this rhetoric, and codified the relationship between the sexual and market economies, by providing a mechanism—the private ownership of property and industrial production—for the enslavement of women:

Household management . . . became a private service ; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production. . . . The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules. 4

This description makes the marriage and commodity markets appear perfectly complementary, implying that the traffic in women which is enabled by capitalist production and exchange is also strictly analogous to other property transactions: in Karl Marx's metonymy, women are one of the many kinds of property a bourgeois can own ("Marriage . . . is incontestably a form of exclusive private property"); in Engels's metaphor, household dynamics replicate industrial production ("within the family he is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat"). 5 Modern critics have endorsed this analogy: Mary Poovey has recently contended that a wife's ability to represent her husband's private property stabilizes the market economy by compensating for "the alienation of market relations" which the (male) worker experiences outside the home, where he himself becomes an object when he sells his labor-power. 6

Surprisingly, then, both Victorian celebrations of the separate spheres, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century condemnations of them, consistently maintain that a sheltered home and a bustling marketplace reinforce one another. 7 On the surface, Ruth's cautionary tale appears to provide further evidence for this familiar assertion: when Ruth transgresses against the rules of one sphere, she is punished in the other as well. Yet if the complicity of the domestic and market economies creates the vicious circle which forms...


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