Academic journal article Style

Negotiating Money in the Wanderer: Lessons from Behavioral Economics

Academic journal article Style

Negotiating Money in the Wanderer: Lessons from Behavioral Economics

Article excerpt

Frances Burney's The Wanderer; Or, Female Difficulties (1814) begins with a negotiation. "In the dead of night" a female emigre of mysterious racial origin begs for a place aboard "a small vessel ... preparing to glide silently [to England] from the coast of France" (11). Ultimately identified as Lady Juliet Granville, she spends three-quarters of this very long novel (1) trying to become financially self-sufficient: hence Burney's subtitle for the work, "Female Difficulties" is a direct reference to the troubles Juliet has along the way. Dispossessed both geographically and financially, she resorts to various schemes for making money. Each scheme is temporary and takes her lower down the ladder of gentility: music-teacher, milliner, seamstress, and an old lady's companion. She endures verbal abuse from three women in particular--Mrs. Howel, Ireton, and Maple; faces sexual advances from men like Sir Lyell Sycamore and Mr. Ireton; and creates a generalized sense of anxiety in this neatly ordered, if parochial, microcosm of English society. Through it all, Juliet remains determinedly nameless--she is called, first "L.S." and then "Ellis" by the novel's other characters--while discouraging the romantic attentions of the socially established Albert Harleigh. Ultimately, she is revealed to have been married under duress during the Reign of Terror to an avaricious French commissary who is later conveniently killed off. Juliet finds social and financial restitution when it is eventually discovered that she is English, not French, and that her deceased aristocratic father left her a huge family fortune.

Although published in 1814 at the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars, The Wanderer's preoccupation with events during and after Robespierre's Reign of Terror makes it very much a work of the 1790s, and throughout this essay, I am going to refer to it as such. Burney alludes to as much in her dedication to the novel, saying, "I had planned and begun it before the end of the last century" (4). For most of the nineteenth century, due mostly to the opprobrium of its initial reception, the novel remained largely ignored. William Hazlitt, one of Burney's gentler critics, acknowledges he is "sorry to be compelled to speak so disadvantageously of the work of an excellent and favorite writer: and the more so, as we perceive no decay of talent, but a perversion of it" (338). John Croker, writing in the Quarterly Review, notes caustically that The Wanderer, "which might be expected to finish and crown [Burney's] literary labors, is not only inferior to its sister-works, but cannot, in our judgment, claim any very decided superiority over the thousand-and-one volumes with which the Minerva Press inundates the shelves of circulating libraries" (124). However, in the late twentieth century, literary scholars have returned their attention to the novel, analyzing it as a feminist text in which Burney "poses fundamental questions about a woman's place in society" (Johnson 167). Barbara Zonitch argues that "by attempting to climb the social ladder by her own talents, and thus achieve a respected and perhaps protective identity, Juliet challenges the notion of elevated birth as the only conduit of honor and integrity" (115). Claire Harman suggests, "Burney's real subject (and audience) was that section of English society, which Ellis passes through as 'wanderer,' the new and vulnerable bourgeoisie, particularly its female members, caught between the old regime of dependence and idleness and the increasing necessity to be self-dependent" (311). While each reading mines a rich vein of interpretive possibilities, they collectively bypass what I consider the real issue at stake: how people negotiate.

Existing literary criticism on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century economic life typically posits that money and fiction are comparable and interchangeable systems of representation, both deriving ultimately from social relationships with credit. …

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