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  • Poverty, Providence, and the State of WelfarePlotting Parabolic Social Mobility in the Early Nineteenth-Century American Novel
  • Matthew Pethers (bio)

There appears to be a certain limit of endurance where we are allotted to pause; after which we rise in the scale of existence, until the balance of prosperity once more preponderates. I found myself by an accident in an eminent degree … placed in the lap of wealth, and sheltered from the howlings of want and indigence.

—George Watterston, Glencarn; or, The Disappointments of Youth (1810)

Toward the end of Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (1799), Charles Brockden Brown’s heroine, Constantia Dudley, receives a generous bequest in the will of a friend. For most of the novel Constantia has been struggling to maintain a state of “bare subsistence” (67). Reduced to penury by a wealthy father’s bankruptcy and illness at the close of the first chapter, she has had to endure numerous trials, including food rationing, exposure to yellow fever, and the sale of treasured possessions. But the sudden accession to “exclusive property of a house and its furniture … with funds adequate to her plentiful maintenance” that takes place in the final part of the book finds her “once more seated in the bosom of affluence” (177). As if to underscore the cyclical nature of this narrative the “rural retreat” inherited by Constantia used, in fact, to belong to her father (177). Having been sold off to Stephen Dudley’s creditors it has traveled through the hands of the eponymous Ormond to his mistress, Helena, who upon her suicide bequeathes it to the Dudley family in recognition of Constantia’s beneficence. In this respect, Constantia’s economic rehabilitation may be unforeseen but it is decidedly not unearned. Her sympathetic treatment of the sexually compromised Helena, as well as her more general fortitude under trying circumstances, is tendered by the novel as an essential qualification for her restoration to “leisure and independence” (177). Like the other tales of financial ruin and redemption that I discuss here, Brown’s Ormond ultimately remedies the problem of poverty through the rhetoric of moral virtue. [End Page 707]

Such tales constitute a neglected early nineteenth-century subgenre that can be dubbed the “parabolic social mobility narrative.” Of the forty or so novels published by American writers between 1799 and 1812, more than a dozen fit the template discernible in Ormond. Although it is almost the only one of these texts to have attracted sustained critical attention, then, Brown’s novel is far from unique. Books such as Helena Wells’s Constantia Neville; or, The West Indian (1800), S. S. B. K. Wood’s Julia, and the Illuminated Baron (1800), and Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta; or, The Intricacies of the Heart (1807) also begin with a (typically female) protagonist who has been set adrift on a journey down the social scale through the death or insolvency of a father figure. Either literally or figuratively orphaned, the lead characters in the “parabolic mobility narrative” must confront imminent destitution despite their best efforts to fend for themselves, and on a romantic plane must often struggle with the multiple complications arising from their thwarted love for someone who is better off than them. These economic and emotional challenges are invariably compounded, meanwhile, by an affluent relative or suitor who persecutes the protagonist in various ways, ranging from slander to kidnap. Yet just as the protagonist seems to be reaching a nadir of indigence or isolation these novels enact a miraculous restitution. Characteristically, after all the tribulation of the preceding pages, a key figure in the narrative is abruptly revealed to be a long-lost relation of the principal, and with this delayed recognition comes a restoration of the protagonists’ former status and a reconciliation with their true love. Chastened by their experience of poverty, the protagonists of the parabolic mobility narrative are finally posited as bringing a worthiness and merit to their recovered property, which the wealthy villains of the story conspicuously lack. To borrow some lines from Ormond, they are “now cured of those prejudices which … early prosperity had instilled, and which had flowed from luxurious indulgences” and have “learned to estimate [themselves] at...


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pp. 707-740
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