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The Vulgar Question of Money

, 320 pages
August 2011



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The Vulgar Question of Money

Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James


It is a familiar story line in nineteenth-century English novels: a hero must choose between money and love, between the wealthy, materialistic, status-conscious woman who could enhance his social position and the poorer, altruistic, independent-minded woman whom he loves. Elsie B. Michie explains what this common marriage plot reveals about changing reactions to money in British culture.

It was in the novel that writers found space to articulate the anxieties surrounding money that developed along with the rise of capitalism in nineteenth-century England. Michie focuses in particular on the character of the wealthy heiress and how she, unlike her male counterpart, represents the tensions in British society between the desire for wealth and advancement and the fear that economic development would blur the traditional boundaries of social classes.

Michie explores how novelists of the period captured with particular vividness England’s ambivalent emotional responses to its own financial successes and engaged questions identical to those raised by political economists and moral philosophers. Each chapter reads a novelist alongside a contemporary thinker, tracing the development of capitalism in Britain: Jane Austen and Adam Smith and the rise of commercial society, Frances Trollope and Thomas Robert Malthus and industrialism, Anthony Trollope and Walter Bagehot and the political influence of money, Margaret Oliphant and John Stuart Mill and professionalism and managerial capitalism, and Henry James and Georg Simmel and the shift of economic dominance from England to America.

Even the great romantic novels of the nineteenth century cannot disentangle themselves from the vulgar question of money. Michie’s fresh reading of the marriage plot, and the choice between two women at its heart, shows it to be as much about politics and economics as it is about personal choice.

Elsie B. Michie is a professor of English at Louisiana State University, coeditor of Victorian Vulgarity, editor of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre : A Casebook and The Lottery of Marriage by Frances Trollope , and author of Outside the Pale: Cultural Exclusion, Gender Difference, and the Victorian Woman Writer.

"A seminal body of outstanding scholarship and a very highly recommended addition to academic library English Literature reference collections and supplemental reading lists."

"An indispensable survey of the figure of the rich woman in the novel of manners from Austen to James... Michie's writing is clear, precise, and lucid. An important work. Essential."

"Bold, engaging, and richly complicated... It is immensely valuable in calling our attention to the relationship between nineteenth-century marriage plots and the discourses of political economy generally and to the maligned but ubiquitous figure of the heiress in particular, challenging critics today to overcome their own sense of money as a vulgar question."

"Michie's book opens up new angles from which to think about the relations between money and marrying in nineteenth-century fiction."

"One of the most valuable pieces of criticism this year. The emphasis and clarity of its writing is a delight in itself."

"The mixture of laughter, guilt, and envy that characterizes our culture’s response to the unattractive rich woman is fully explored and exorcized in this closely argued study."

"An excellent book, one that will be eagerly read and regularly cited as an original, authoritative study of a major issue in nineteenth-century literature and culture."

"This is a valuable study that will be useful to anyone interested in gender and economics in the nineteenth century."

"The rich development of its themes, no less than its local insights, should place this book high on Victorianists' reading lists."

"This is a sophisticated and thought-provoking study."

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