- Women of Fortune: Money, Marriage, and Murder in Early Modern England by Linda Levy Peck
Women of Fortune charts the story of the social mobility of two provincial gentry families, the Bennets and the Morewoods, who made their fortunes in London during the seventeenth century. Levy Peck shows how economic and social change had implications for gender relations among the gentry and what the rise of the gentry looks like when we place women at the center of the story. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the two families who are the focus of Levy Peck's study and explain how the family fortune was generated—through the mercery and grocery trades, moneylending, property holding, international commerce, and investment.
Levy Peck expends seventy-five pages before discussing the female members of the family, but they are worth the wait. Her protagonists are a group of fascinating women who seem to leap from the pages of a novel or streaming miniseries. After inheriting the family wealth, these women actively began the project of managing, protecting, and spending it. The second generation of the Bennet—Morewoods included women such as Elizabeth (Cradock) Bennet, the daughter of a Staffordshire wool merchant who became Lady Finch by her second marriage and who was involved in developing Kensington House (later Palace). Her daughter [End Page 595] Anne married Viscount Conway and became known as a published philosopher.
One of Levy Peck's major contributions is to present heiresses as subjects of a family story rather than as merely passive objects of familial strategies. Chapter 5 provides an entertaining look at the marriage negotiations for two Bennet heiresses. Levy Peck cleverly positions these two sisters' experiences alongside the marital dramas of two other sets of heiresses, their female Clifton cousins and the Duke of Newcastle's daughters, illustrating the small world of the British elite. Although Levy Peck does not deny that young rich women had to follow their family's wishes (in fact, Grace and Frances Bennet both married in their early to mid-teens, and their parents chose their spouses), shed oes not convey that these women were passive. For instance, Frances, whose parents orchestrated her marriage to the 4th Earl of Salisbury at age thirteen, chose never to remarry once she became widowed in her early twenties. Instead, she used her fortune to travel Europe for four years, creating her own female version of the Grand Tour. Leaving her son in Britain, Frances traversed the continent, imbibing culture, catching smallpox, socializing with Jacobites, and trying to outrun a persistent suitor. She was just one of the many Bennet—Morewood women who "became strong advocates for themselves, and their property... [and] developed a strong sense of independence" (119–120).
Part III of the book is entitled "Murder"; along with money and sex (or at least marriage), the story of the Bennet women also includes a grisly death. The victim was the elderly Grace Bennet, who secluded herself at a Buckinghamshire manor house where she hoarded the family wealth—the rumor being that the widow had hidden £60,000 in gold and silver in the house or garden. Temptation proved too much for a local butcher who stole onto the property, broke Grace Bennet's neck, and fled with some of the gold. Levy Peck notes the rarity of this crime—Bennet may have been the only female relative of a peer to have been murdered throughout the entire seventeenth century—and proceeds to a fascinating analysis of why. She argues that contemporaries thought Grace Bennet was at fault for her own murder because she transgressed norms around money and property. Not only did Bennet hoard her money, rather than exhibiting her genteel status through consumption and hospitality, she also refused to pay tithes and poor rates or to hire laborers to work her land. Bennet let her land lie fallow, rather than keeping it productive. Levy Peck says she did the same thing with her money, letting it lay hidden and unproductive rather than spending...