Elsie B. Michie, The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James.
What does it mean, in Victorian culture, for something to be seen as vulgar? Much like 'cool' today perhaps, if you have to ask, you will never know-but the capacity to discriminate between vulgar and respectable forms of behaviour is a crucial attribute for the virtuous protagonist of a nineteenth-century novel, and indeed for the attentive readers of that novel.
Elsie B. Michie, already the co-editor of a valuable collection on Victorian vulgarity, confronts directly the paradox that, just as in capitalist societies, even if humans are motivated by things other than money, they still need money in order to continue existing. Likewise, realist novels both seek to demonstrate that there is more to life than riches, but 'need' the material of wealth and physical possessions in order to tell such a story. Michie productively reads the nineteenth-century marriage-plot as a means of debating 'value' in the novel, and her readings of Jane Austen, Frances and Anthony Trollope and Henry James are placed in dialogue with the intellectual history of the competing claims of economics and ethics on the meaning of that word. Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which shows 'how natural it is for individuals to admire wealth and what it can do' (p. 31) proves especially crucial in articulating the doublethink that while money might underwrite life's good things, such as love, art and kindness to others, the pursuit of money for its own sake is still a bad thing. Michie has clearly read so much on value, from Carlyle, Mill and Simmel to Bourdieu and Deleuze and Guattari that just occasionally her own voice struggles to be heard in the mix-'Austen explicitly associates ... what Christopher Kent calls ... As Neil McKendrick notes' (p. 36) in the space of four lines-but largely her argument is fluently and energetically made. Gamely, Michie opens her account by yielding to 'the fashion to introduce academic papers by telling personal anecdotes' (p. ix), telling the story of how, when mentioning an inheritance passed to her through the female side of her family, she was met by an academic audience not with warmth but mild distaste-the 'embarrassment' of riches, indeed.
Michie's approach is avowedly interdisciplinary, seeking to produce an 'anthropology' of the marriage plot's navigation between 'gross avidity and aesthetic purity' (p. 220). This choice of lens really does reveal just how much of Victorian fiction is concerned with the maintenance of kinship structures and why so many fictional heiresses end by marrying endogamously-to their cousins-rather than exogamously, with the consequence that their inheritance would leave the clan. The desire to retain property trumps the taboo against incest. Implicit is the assumption that property normally should be in the hands of men, so Michie's argument becomes very productively gendered. Anxiety in the novel about the 'vulgar' display or pursuit of wealth, Michie points out, is especially centred on the figure of the heiress: a vulgar rich woman is seen as much more vulgar than a rich man, for 'women reveal the negative effects of possessing wealth in more exaggerated or excessive form than men' (p. 27). Heiresses are often a test case for the virtue of the hero as both sexually and economically alluring enough to tempt him away from the right set of values: 'the rich woman both marks the presence of materialism in the text and has a key function in its symbolic order' (p. 3). Mr. Darcy ultimately proves himself; Pip succumbs.
The novel of manners, as critics such as Lionel Trilling have previously argued, is a means of dramatising debates about morality and the obligations conferred by class status and by riches. Thus Emma Woodhouse's riches do not grant her an exemption from behaving correctly, rather, they place her under a greater obligation; the value of such as Elizabeth Bennett is proved all the more by their being sexually selected in spite of their lack of property, this sort of ending a fantasy of the successful resolution of a real social inequity. Frances Trollope is read here as exploring the limits placed on 'taste' by the voracity of sheer 'appetite' whereas Margaret Oliphant is seen to be idealising the male professional for doing the right thing but still expecting to be paid.
The sense of history displayed in The Vulgar Question of Money shows human culture evolving from Malthusian hunger to satiety, luxury and consumer choice, with a new set of ethical problems consequently emerging at each stage. Over the course of the nineteenth century wealth is first land, then objects and consumer goods, then credit and finance, becoming more powerful as it becomes progressively dematerialised. Perhaps one of the ways in which literary novels deal with the paradox of material dependence on, but intellectual independence from money is by showing an awareness of themselves as books, as consumer goods. To each chapter is appended a fascinating coda that reads the texts through their afterlives: the appreciation of Austen novels as a canon of being able to show good taste, and the reverse being true of the easier, hence guiltier, pleasure of Frances Trollope (her son seen as vulgar because he represents vulgarity so persistently, and so well); Virginia Woolf's accusing Oliphant of prostituting her talent in Three Guineas; the reworking of Jamesian themes in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.
Henry James is the subject of the book's final chapter, and characteristically, his take on this story is an ironic one. As his brother put it, 'you've reversed every traditional canon in story telling' (p. 182) in novels such as The Spoils of Poynton and The Wings of the Dove, where the configurations of love, money and beautiful objects are in the wrong place. James, sensibly enough perhaps, in The Wings of the Dove associates avidity not with the woman who has money, but the one who does not: 'read in the light of James's late novel, the scapegoating of the rich woman in earlier versions of the marriage plot looks like a form of wishful thinking, a way of imaginatively linking the impact of wealth by associating money's negative influence with those who already possess it' (p. 182). The choice between marrying for money or marrying for love is rarely as simple as that in J ames, and these plots' refusal to end in the ways that their readers would prefer asks difficult questions about fiction's-and culture's-attitude towards, and uses of, money.
Durham University Simon James
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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