Academic journal article Intertexts

My Worldly Goods Do Thee Endow: Economic Conservatism, Widowhood, and the Mid- and Late Eighteenth-Century Novel

Academic journal article Intertexts

My Worldly Goods Do Thee Endow: Economic Conservatism, Widowhood, and the Mid- and Late Eighteenth-Century Novel

Article excerpt

The figure of the widow in eighteenth-century novels can be understood as a cipher for the age's anxieties about emerging capitalism. As the social networks of England began to reorganize under an increasingly volatile generation and distribution of wealth, English society limited capitalism's potential for destabilizing the social network by limiting women's participation in capitalist enterprise. As part of this effort, eighteenth-century thinkers reconceptualized gender to promote this separation of male and female endeavors and to continue to legitimize the unfettered exploitative potential of the emerging system. The novel participated in such efforts, notably through characterizations of widows, women who, historically, had rights and privileges associated with men. The mid- and late-century novel used this figure to delineate the proper female as a selfless, non-commercially-oriented being even when possessed of the tights and privileges conferred by widowhood. The affluent widow was especially effective for defining virtuous femininity as femininity removed from commercial endeavor and its values, because she was a woman who possessed the education, social power, and economic means to be autonomous and maintain that independence. Affluent widows appear throughout eighteenth-century novels, and serve as central characters in works including Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall (1762), Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), Clara Reeve's School for Widows (1791), and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). These characters show how the mid- and late-century novel located itself within an emerging ideology and economy, as well as how it conservatively constructed femininity, specifically femininity in the economic realm.

The widows of Millenium Hall, Evelina, School for Widows, and The Mysteries of Udolpho demonstrate two significant characterizations that define proper and improper female interaction with social, personal, and especially economic power. Virtuous widows such as Scott's Mrs. Morgan and Reeve's Mrs. Darnford and Mrs. Strictland model exemplary female behavior by refusing to use their economic autonomy except for benevolent purposes. They act to preserve or maintain the status quo, they operate in a rural, agrarian-oriented context, and their interests lie primarily with the welfare of their family or local community. Through them, the novel limits the disruptive potential of widowhood by allowing virtuous women to act only for others, not for themselves, and only to preserve, not to improve. Conversely, wicked widows such as Burney's Madame Duval or Radcliffe's Madame Cheron act with only their own interests in mind, interests that are not simply urban, social, and economic, but also aggressively sexual. The eighteenth-century novel employs wicked widows to limit the disruptive potential of such women's engagement in capitalism by punishing them for doing so, and by translating the values and behavior of capitalist endeavors by women into villainy.

Mid- and late-century novels use these recurring characterizations to limit the potential for women to engage in the same capitalist explosion making so many opportunities available to men. Both types also allow the novel to endorse or reject capitalism, either by showing how wealth, often generated by male economic endeavor, can be used by female benevolence to better others, or by showing how commercial activity is selfish and exploitative at its core. While mercantile capitalism's effect on the sociopolitical sphere was itself sufficiently problematic to generate a new discourse about systems of wealth, power, and morality, its effect was compounded when it entered into the realm of gender, exacerbating earlier anxieties about female socioeconomic autonomy. As scholars such as Laura Brown, Gillian Skinner, and Liz Bellamy have demonstrated, capitalist ideology and literature used gender to establish and justify the passivity of women in capitalism, and scholars such as Felicity Nussbaum and Toni Bowers have explained how specific gender definitions, especially motherhood, developed to support these ideological developments. …

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