Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Law of Property

By Wolfram Schmidgen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Communal form and the transitional culture of the
eighteenth-century novel

Landed property must be a central focus in any study of the construction of community in eighteenth-century Britain. Although the advances in domestic manufacture and foreign trade in the second half of the eighteenth century tend to stand out most in accounts of the rise of industrialism, these advances were more than matched by the significant growth of agricultural productivity in the period. 1 In addition to its crucial economic role, landed property remained, virtually undisputed until the end of the century, Britain's dominant social, political, and ideological paradigm. 2 The rapid expansion of movable forms of property in the eighteenth century — commodities, stocks, credit — challenged the real and ideological dominance of immovable property, but the rapidity with which movables spread did not result in a quick or fundamental transformation of the established world of immovables. Even Adam Smith, who considered the wide distribution of increasingly various and refined commodities a crucial measure of the difference between “civilized” and “savage” societies, in the end projected a national economy that historically emerged from the gains made on the landed estate and continued to be grounded in agriculture, which for Smith represented a privileged figure of productivity and secure wealth. 3 Landed property was too deeply entrenched, imaginatively and in fact, to be run over by what we have come to recognize, with good reason, as the “commercialization of eighteenth-century England. ” 4

The combative language I have used here is, of course, questionable on a more fundamental level. While many eighteenth-century commentators painted conflictive scenarios in which movable and immovable forms of property face each other as opponents — the one corrupting and fleeting, the other virtuous and stable — a more flexible perspective which recognizes the essential connection between all forms of property makes greater conceptual and historical sense. This book investigates the relationship between persons and things under the assumption that

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