Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property

By Wolfram Schmidgen | Go to book overview

Introduction

This book examines how the eighteenth-century novel, along with legal, economic, and aesthetic texts, represents the relationship between persons and things. It contends that this relationship is dynamic and that its complexities have escaped commentators on eighteenth-century culture, too many of whom have relied on simplifying distinctions between the human and the material, mobility and immobility, body and space. A remarkable amount of cultural work has gone into linking persons and things, yet much of it has escaped critical scrutiny. In this book I argue that we can recover essential elements of such cultural work by focusing on an aspect of eighteenth-century fiction that has not received much attention: the description of material reality. My argument rests on the basic Marxist assumption that the social, political, and psychological structures of a community are shaped by the interaction between human and material spheres, but it insists that such interactions are not exclusively defined by the economic. They are molded as well by cultural forces, and I show that the descriptive association of persons and things plays a critical role in exploringand exposingthe limits of communal forms abroad, in the far reaches of empire, and in the contested union of Great Britain itself. Eighteenth-century Britain is an important case for such an argument because it reveals the persistence and permutations of a communal imagination that closely aligns persons and things. For reasons that will gradually become clearer, the differentiation between human imagination and material causality that became pervasive in subsequent periods is still marginal at this time. Communities of persons and things in eighteenth-century Britain are on the whole characterized by permeable boundaries, by a sense of open traffic across human and material zones. Only very gradually, and against considerable resistance, are these boundaries delineated.

This book is about this process. Usingcommunity as an overarchingconcept, it wants to grasp the history of objectification as a more

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