Defoe's the Complete English Tradesman and the Prostitute Narrative: Minding the Shop in Mrs. Elizabeth Wisebourn, Sally Salisbury, and Roxana

By Smith, Sharon | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Defoe's the Complete English Tradesman and the Prostitute Narrative: Minding the Shop in Mrs. Elizabeth Wisebourn, Sally Salisbury, and Roxana


Smith, Sharon, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


But the safe tradesman is he, that, , , keeps close within the verge of his own affairs, minds his shop or warehouse, and confining himself to what belongs to him there, goes on in the road of his business without launching into unknown oceans.

-Daniel Defoe, The Complete English Tradesman ( 1726)

Introduction

The widespread financial devastation caused by the failure of the South Sea Company in 1720 created a heightened sense of anxiety regarding the unpredictable nature of the English economy.1 The ill-fated scheme, concocted by a small group of English politicians and businessmen and backed by a Parliament eager to manage the nation's growing war debt, resulted in what may have been the "first international financial crisis" (Dale 1), ruining investors and destabilizing governments throughout Europe. As several critics have noted, Daniel Defoe's The Complete English Tradesman, a lengthy guidebook for shopkeepers first published in 1726, both reflects and confronts the anxieties generated in part by the South Sea Bubble's collapse.2 Defoe wrote his post-Bubble guidebook, which Sandra Sherman identifies as "the most comprehensive anatomy of shopkeeping ever written" (Finance and Fictionality 97), during a time when the British economy seemed increasingly irrational. As Defoe writes in The Complete English Tradesman, "We see one grow rich, and the other starve, under the very same circumstances" (1: vii). Defoe claims that this is the "the temper of the times" ( 1: vii) and suggests there are simply too many variables beyond the tradesman's control within a complex and unpredictable economy.

As Defoe recognized, England's credit-based economy was becoming increasingly characterized by risk.3 Risk, however, provided the conditions for success as well as failure, and many writers-including Defoe-approached the notion of risk with ambivalence, as something that could and should be minimized, but that was also inevitable, necessary, and even desirable.4 Defoe teaches the tradesman how to negotiate risk, an endeavor that becomes inextricably tied to the concept of oversight, most particularly oversight of the space represented by the shop. His most essential piece of advice to the tradesman is simply to master his immediate environment, or to "mind the shop." As obvious as this advice seems, Defoe recognized that mastery, a quality he considered vital to the completion of the tradesman, was as elusive as it was necessary, and he returns to the concept repeatedly, if not obsessively, within the pages of his guidebook. The Complete English Tradesman is the clearest articulation of Defoe's middle-class life philosophy, a philosophy in which the businesses of trade and life are conflated, and the mastery of one depends upon the mastery of the other.

When the complete tradesman is considered in relation to other post- Bubble representations of economic mastery, it becomes clear that Defoe's masculine ideal emerged within a culture that was already preoccupied with this concept. This is particularly evident within the pages of prostitute narratives written in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble's collapse, including the three prostitute narratives I explore here: Anodyne Tanner's The Life of the Late Celebrated Mrs. Elizabeth Wisebourn (1721), Charles Walker's Authentick Memoirs of the Life, Intrigues, and Adventures of the Celebrated Sally Salisbury (1723), and Defoe's own Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress ( 1724).5 Sometimes configured within prostitute narratives as a bawd, but most often configured as a prostitute, the woman who trades sex for money is constructed as an individual whose economic stability depends upon her ability to master not only herself, but also her circumstances, her environment, and her customers. When one reads The Complete English Tradesman within the context of such narratives, one of the eighteenth-century's most infamous figures-that of the female sex worker-emerges as a model for Defoe's middle-class masculine ideal. …

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