Women, Accounting, and Narrative: Keeping Books in Eighteenth-Century England

Women, Accounting, and Narrative: Keeping Books in Eighteenth-Century England

Women, Accounting, and Narrative: Keeping Books in Eighteenth-Century England

Women, Accounting, and Narrative: Keeping Books in Eighteenth-Century England

Synopsis

In the early eighteenth-century the household accountant was traditionally female, they were also associated with literary and narrative accounting, inherent in diaries and letters. This text examines the development of the early novel.

Excerpt

The words that recur in the literature of an age offer clues to contemporary fascinations and anxieties. In the eighteenth century, "account" is such a word, taking various forms and conveying multiple meanings. Account, accounting, accountable: the words are found everywhere from tutelary texts to novels, particularly - it turns out - in literature about and directed toward women. In eighteenth-century usage, "account" denoted supposedly true histories as well as fictitious chronicles, encompassed simple financial sums as well as complex double-entry bookkeeping, described Protestant debt-credit relationships to God as well as social ties exacting in their reciprocal economic responsibility. "Account" speaks, too, of memory - what is chosen to be remembered, and how people remember. What then, are the cultural and ideological preoccupations behind these literary references, and why are they so often associated with women?

This book explores works of fiction alongside the various ladies' almanacs and pocket books ubiquitous in the eighteenth century. These portable volumes often included blank "chapters" intended as diaries, to be kept by women primarily for the recording of financial accounts. Indeed, such volumes express a growing cultural expectation that women document what they had, what they owed, and what they were owed. I shall examine a pattern of behavior displayed not only by ordinary women diarists, but also by women characters in popular novels of the era, many of whom, like the heroines of Defoe and Richardson, seem to be fictional versions of the owners of such almanacs as The Ladies' Own Memorandum and The Ladies' Compleat Pocket Book. Equally revealing are those writers who resisted bookkeeping and all it implied. Thus the late-seventeenth-century Aphra Behn deliberately omits precise financial records; accounting in her stories symbolizes an encroaching, and corrupting, capitalist world. Novels written only a few decades later, however, are rife with women who eagerly "tell" not just money but also stories. These later characters articulate themselves through economic and textual ownership, shrewdly aware of the value of both their money and their narratives. In the diary pages of ladies'

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