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Economic and Symbolic Transmissions in Women’s Novels: Frances Burney, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell

Transmissions économiques et symboliques dans les romans de Frances Burney, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell
Marie-Laure Massei-Chamayou


Dans Un Lieu à soi (1929), Virginia Woolf met en évidence une fascinante filiation d’autrices, d’Aphra Behn à George Eliot, en passant, entre autres, par Frances Burney et Jane Austen, reliées par leur intérêt commun pour la fiction et les questions économiques. À la croisée des transmissions économiques et symboliques, cette communication entend souligner l’évolution des représentations des rapports complexes des femmes à l’héritage à travers quelques romans emblématiques dont les intrigues reflètent des bouleversements économiques et sociaux majeurs  à savoir Cecilia (1782) de Frances Burney, Sense and Sensibility (1811) de Jane Austen et North and South (1854-55) d’Elizabeth Gaskell.

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1In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf traces a fascinating matrilineal genealogy of women writers from Aphra Behn to George Eliot, including Frances Burney and Jane Austen among others, to emphasize the power of influence and of symbolic transmission in relation to their engagement with both fiction and economics:

Aphra Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities. . . .  Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.  . . . Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontës and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe . . .  for masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common . . .  so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. (75‒76)

2Beyond simply paying homage to renowned female forerunners who dared attempt the pen, Woolf’s foundational text establishes a powerful alternative lineage that implicitly calls attention to these women’s subtle questioning of the patriarchal organisation of society in their works, notably through their recurrent concern with the transmission of property in a patrilineal system. Strikingly enough, the novels written by some of these authors throughout the Georgian and Victorian periods gave voice to deep-seated female anxieties about money, property, and inheritance, showing how problematic, thorny, and painful the very notion of transmission could be for women, whether as spinsters, wives or mothers. A fact bluntly stated by Jane Austen’s ironic narrator in Persuasion (1818) which epitomises the economic, social, moral, and psychological issues at stake in a system that privileged male heirs, regardless of the latter’s integrity: ‘Three girls . . .  was an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath; an awful charge, rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father’ (4).

  • 1 In Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700–1830, Briony McDonagh has convincingly challeng (...)

3As a matter of fact, genteel women found themselves in a most uncomfortable predicament with respect to the very concept of transmission, whether from a symbolic, familial or material perspective: while they hardly had legal access to landed wealth because of the widespread practice of entailing estates away from the female line,1 they were nonetheless ‘held responsible for domestic expenditure’, as underlined by Edward Copeland (Women Writing about Money i). In ‘Women and Property in the Long Eighteenth Century’, Rita J. Dashwood and Karen Lipsedge draw attention to the particularly blatant injustice of English law in relation to women’s property rights when compared to other European countries such as Portugal. In The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives (1735), the anonymous author highlights the striking discrepancy between the two countries:

I have been informed by Persons of great Integrity, who have long resided in Portugal . . .  that a Wife in Portugal if she brought never a Farthing, has Power to dispose of half her Husband’s Estate by Will; whereas a Woman by our Law alienates all her own Property so entirely by Marriage, that if she brought an hundred Pounds in Money, she cannot bequeath one single Penny. (29‒30)

  • 2 In her letters, Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, lamented at the prospect of being a governess: ‘ (...)

4The legal practice of inheritance and wills deriving from the Common Law’s endorsement of the primogeniture principle brought to England with the Norman Conquest actually ‘severely restricted women’s access to property, both portable and non-portable’—the latter phrase referring to land, the house, the estate (Dashwood & Lipsedge 335). While they were, most of the time, characterised as profligate creatures, women could not earn their own money, particularly in the ranks of the gentry and the landed elite, where marriage still represented the only career left to them—and a seemingly more decent perspective than being a mere governess or an impoverished school mistress.2 Moreover, in the marriage market, women were not in the best bargaining position since their value was equated with, or reduced to, the amount of their dowry. As matrimony was not narrowly about love and bliss, but generally involved wider matters of family strategy with a well-drawn marriage settlement to ensure financial gain, or the consolidation of lineage and status, women were regarded as pawns.

5Once they were married, their main duty was, ironically enough, to ensure intergenerational transmission by bringing at least an heir, and possibly a spare, into the world; but contrary to unmarried women and widows who actually had the same rights to property, wives were hindered by common law both from inheriting and passing on landed or matrimonial property to their descendants. As William Blackstone famously explained in 1753, wives thus had no rights over their children and their personal assets since they were subject to and bound by the restrictions inherent in the common law of coverture:

  • 3 Generally, women only had access to an allowance of pocket money, or pin money, to be spent on clot (...)

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law and that person is the husband: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything. (Commentaries on the Laws of England 442)3

  • 4 In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act reformed the law on divorce and widened its availability to the (...)

6Dashwood and Lipsedge recall that ‘the husband was also legally entitled to receive the rental income from any property belonging to his wife, whereas she would not be able to sell it or rent it without his permission’ (335). In the early decades of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf’s tongue-in-cheek remarks thus perfectly summed up the plight of women in the preceding centuries4:

What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? . . .  It is useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the foundations of college and library, because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what they earned. (Woolf 24, 26)

  • 5 Commenting on Jane Austen’s achievement despite the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her, V (...)

7Far from being free economic agents, women could not, therefore, even determine the modalities of financial or economic transmission, whereas their very bodies were its main linchpin when it came to bearing the children without whom no continuity of the family line could be ensured. Such a lack of economic agency prompted some women—the most presumptuous ones, undoubtedly!—to find alternative modes of leaving a legacy, whether in material or cultural terms (or both), and one of these modes was writing for publication. Frances Burney (1752‒1840), Jane Austen (1775‒1817), and Elizabeth Gaskell (1810‒1865)—to name but a few—turned to the novel genre5 to question such ingrained economic limitations in works that echo one another, notably in their criticism of irresponsible male figures whose power was grounded in the property system. At the crossroads between economic and symbolic transmissions, this paper addresses the evolving representations of women’s complex relationships to inheritance by focusing on three emblematic novels whose plots not only crystallize epochal economic and social changes, but explore different ways of dramatizing the place and position of women in their respective societies—namely Burney’s Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782), Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), and Gaskell’s North and South (1854‒55).

8The grim representation of the legal predicament of women in Cecilia and in Sense and Sensibility highlights the perniciousness of the inheritance system, particularly when it is compounded by men’s wills, and uncovers symbolic transmissions between the two women novelists. Beyond her concern with the economic sidelining of women, Austen’s insistence on the duties that come with inheritance is politically informed as she sought to vindicate the transmission of a worthy social, moral, and cultural heritage in a materialistic age still marked by the revolutionary context. Actively engaging with the momentous economic and social consequences of the industrial revolution, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South provided its readership with a new kind of woman, whose determination to improve people’s lives thanks to her economic empowerment not only called to mind Burney’s Cecilia, but also paved the way for George Eliot’s heroine in Middlemarch (1871‒72).

9As recalled by Dashwood and Lipsedge, ‘systems of inheritance have been a much-debated issue in England from the sixteenth century’ (335), both in legal courts and in literature. At a time of overwhelming economic and social change, where the ‘nouveaux riches’’ commercial wealth not only began to stand in lieu of birth, merit and accomplishments, but also accelerated social mobility and the blurring of status boundaries, the foundations of the landed elite’s power were increasingly challenged. Through its close interest in the economy, class structures and legal practices, the emerging novel genre appeared as a privileged site to unfold this debate within plots that reflected the anxieties, conflicts, and underlying concerns present in eighteenth-century society. Samuel Richardson, for instance, first denounced the potentially tragic repercussions of the patriarchal system of inheritance in Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady (1747‒48), by showing how the Harlowes’ cruel family property arrangements and greed lead to the relentless persecution and ultimate death of their daughter, Clarissa. In The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753‒54), Richardson then created an exemplary and noble hero who finds fault with the very system that yet benefits him: ‘For does not tyrant custom make a daughter change her name in marriage, and give to a son, for the sake of name only, the estate of the common ancestor of both?’ (I. 398). Logically enough, women’s fiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries took up the vexed issue of the persistence of such inheritance laws in an emerging capitalist culture, especially when its female authors came from the cultivated middle classes and claimed their stake on the literary scene in the wake of formidable male precursors.

10Such was the case of Frances Burney in her ambitious second novel in five volumes, aptly (or ironically) entitled Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, whose intricate exploration of inheritance, name, and identity provides a telling example of the fascinating connections between economic, symbolic and literary transmissions. Burney’s plot actually gave a significant twist to former inheritance stories that either culminated in the death of the virtuous heroine or rewarded her with a sudden acquisition of wealth which enabled her to settle down to a perfectly happy and useful life with the husband of her choice. By contrast, Burney used the inheritance convention to exacerbate an heiress’s mental predicament in a society that put strong emphasis on the control of property and on the silencing of women.

11At the novel’s outset, Burney’s orphaned heroine, Cecilia Beverley, is heiress to the large sum of 10,000 pounds from the estate that her father bequeathed upon her (without any restrictions). Her uncle’s death also ‘made her heiress to an estate of 3000l. per annum; with no other restriction than that of annexing her name, if she married, to the disposal of her hand and her riches’ (Cecilia 5-6, italics mine). If this (under)statement may not appear as a critical piece of information in the detailed preliminary description, it is of material importance since the uncle’s will to bind patronym and property definitely complicates the fate of Cecilia in the marriage market. Actually, one of Burney’s main points was to explore the dire consequences of this arbitrary written will on the heroine’s psyche, especially as it leaves her doubly exposed: while her paternal wealth designates her as a prey to fortune-hunters, the name clause means that she will be burdened by the strange dictates of her ancestry in a novel devoid of reliable paternal figures. As underlined in Margaret Anne Doody’s introduction to the novel, ‘Cecilia has been put (against her will) in the position of a pseudo male: standing in for the patriarchal inheritor of name and social identity, she is to impose that name on a consort. . . .  if her husband does not take her name, then the estate vanishes’ (Doody xvi). Paradoxically enough, Cecilia’s status as an heiress reduces her to a mere commodity as she is regarded ‘not as an independent person but as a conduit for conveying money from one man’s family to another, . . .  not as a free agent, but as a property waiting to be taken’ (Doody xvii). This fact is clearly emphasized through the objectifying (male) gaze of a ‘gentleman, Sir Robert Floyer’ when he meets Cecilia: ‘The moment Cecilia appeared, she became the object of his attention, though neither with the look of admiration due to her beauty, nor with that of curiosity . . .  but with the scrutinizing observation of a man on the point of making a bargain, who views with fault-seeking eyes the property he means to cheapen’ (34).

12Moreover, Cecilia’s situation is further compounded by the fact that her fortune is left in the care of three male guardians who all prove either extravagant, irresponsible or dishonest, even as they enjoin her to keep her estate for her future husband (180)—making it clear that an heiress cannot remain single by choice. Following a series of financial misadventures, ranging between extortion, expropriation, and misappropriation, Cecilia finds herself tricked out of her paternal inheritance of 10,000 pounds by Mr. Harrel, who abuses her natural benevolence and generosity to pay off his debts. Burney’s point is quite clear: despite Cecilia’s obvious personal qualities, endowed as she is with a rational mind, ‘a strong sense of DUTY’, and ‘a fervent desire to ACT RIGHT’ (55), she is all the more controlled as the world she inhabits relies on economic hierarchies from which she cannot escape and which thwart the possibility of her individual fulfilment.

13Now, the love plot becomes as grim as what Copeland calls ‘the plot of hard cash’ (‘Money in the Novels of Fanny Burney’ 29) when the heroine falls in love with Mortimer Delvile, the son of one of the trustees of her estate who shares his parents’ deep reverence for name and ancestry. Mortimer’s father, whose families ‘count on each side Dukes, Earls and Barons in their genealogy’ (Cecilia 257) thus opposes their marriage precisely because of the name clause, even though the Delviles are described as ‘poor in every branch, alike lineal and collateral’ (256), and ‘rapacious’ (257). Recoiling from any Manichean representations, Burney shows that lineage and pedigree weigh in on women and men alike, as lamented by Mortimer Delvile: ‘Oh cruel clause! barbarous and repulsive clause! that forbids my aspiring to the first of women, but by an action that with my own family would degrade me for ever’ (512). Cecilia’s eventual decision to marry Mortimer Delvile on his own terms, which entails giving up both her name and her uncle’s fortune, is not quite the end of her trials since her financial and legal tribulations result in her being distraught, ‘crazy’ (901), ‘quite spent and exhausted’ (897)—thereby literally embodying the reality of her economic situation. By depicting her heroine as literally running mad in the streets of London in a climactic scene, Burney boldly draws attention to the ultimate consequences of female powerlessness (even as the men who surround Cecilia all claimed they were taking good care of her and protecting her assets): ‘The distraction of her mind every instant growing greater . . .  she ran on . . .  gliding from place to place, from street to street; with no consciousness of any plan; . . .  she abruptly ran into a yet open shop, where she sunk upon the floor, and, with a look disconsolate and helpless, sat for some time without speaking’ (897). The heroine’s mental and physical disintegration is both emphasized and checked through the controlling voice of a third-person narrator who remembers for her while she is bereft of her mind. As Copeland notes, Burney’s approach to economic realities from the perspective of ‘an unprovided, unprotected woman’ gives voice to ‘a story of helplessness and loss’ (Copeland 1975, 30), which sometimes lies at the crossroads between melodrama and Gothic horrors. At the mercy of her uncle’s will and men’s demanding claims, oppressed by so many economic, financial, and legal entanglements, Cecilia becomes, at some point, penniless and forsaken, unable to establish a claim to respect and a place in society.

14In a final twist, Burney has her ‘senseless, speechless, motionless’ (918) heroine rescued by a pawnbroker (ironically enough, now that she has given up her valuable name), and as the marriage is finally accepted by the name-proud Delviles, the reunited lovers find themselves safely settled in the paternal home. Although the conventions of comedy eventually prevail, the ending dampens the readers’ sense of relief, for the heroine has lost her name, her fortune, and the ability to act independently in the process of ‘gaining’ a husband:

The upright mind of Cecilia, her purity, her virtue, and the moderation of her wishes, gave to her in the warm affection of Lady Delvile, and the unremitting fondness of Mortimer, all the happiness human life seems capable of receiving: —yet human it was, and as such imperfect! She knew that, at times, the whole family must murmur at her loss of fortune, and at times she murmured herself to be thus portionless, tho’ an HEIRESS. (941)

15What this novel’s intricate and sometimes graphic use of the inheritance trope actually highlights is Burney’s indictment of both the old system of ancestry and the new system of power based on the pre-eminence of money, which leave women equally powerless, particularly when they are the victims of a concerted attack on their fortune.

  • 6 Evelina is nameless because unacknowledged by her father. Most tellingly, while reflecting on unnam (...)

16Beyond the dramatization of the predicament of orphan heiresses targeted as preys by fortune-hunters, Burney’s concern with women’s vexed relationship to name, place, and inheritance may also reflect her own difficult position in relation to her father, Dr Charles Burney. A talented musician and music writer holding a degree from the University of Oxford, Frances’s father had attracted aristocratic patronage and interest, but he kept aspiring to more lasting cultural status since the social significance of their family name was not a given (Gallagher 217). Hence Frances’s decision to publish her first novel, Evelina, or, A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778) anonymously and without her father’s knowledge to avoid embarrassing her family if the book received negative reviews.6 Charles Burney finally learnt that his daughter had authored Evelina only after he had read the highly favourable public reviews of the novel. Given such huge critical and popular success, Frances was encouraged to write a new novel by her father who wished to capitalize on his daughter’s literary achievement and now well-known name in order to consolidate his own fame in the wake of the publication of his second History of Music in 1781. As underlined by Catherine Gallagher, ‘the change in Burney’s status is rather obviously encoded in Cecilia. Instead of being nameless like Evelina, Cecilia Beverley is overburdened by her name’ (Gallagher 231)—and so was Frances, faced with such high family expectations when she published her second novel under her own name.

17If Cecilia can neither keep her name nor her fortune after her estate has been synonymous with liability, loss, debt, and debit, Burney was praised for her new achievement when Cecilia came out, and definitely accepted as a writer worthy of critical attention. Frances’s earnings, however, were not hers, as they were invested by her father in the three-per-cents in the national debt, which paid her a mere pittance annually. According to Catherine Gallagher, Dr Burney’s craving for ‘the extension of the family’s honour and social reach through her authorship entailed the sacrifice of his daughter’s individual financial interest to the family’s corporate good’ (Gallagher 251). But Charles’s and Frances’s joint success in creating cultural and symbolic capital meant that they had both become respected authors, and authorship, in her case, was not considered as a step down from a previous state of gentility.

  • 7 In the preface to Evelina, Burney made an interesting statement in terms of symbolic legacies as sh (...)

18It is on this cultural capital and intellectual legacy that Jane Austen also wanted to build when she quoted Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth’s successful novels in Northanger Abbey (1818). To those who disparaged and criticized the novel genre by claiming, ‘oh it’s only a novel’, Austen’s narrator responded the following arguments: ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties . . .  are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’ (Northanger Abbey 34). While Burney had enlisted Fielding, Richardson, and Smollett in her preface to Evelina,7 Austen chose to fit into a line of respected female authors long before Woolf had highlighted this retrospective genealogy of women writers.

  • 8 For a convincing discussion of Sense and Sensibility as ‘a transitional novel’ which both ‘outdates (...)
  • 9 In Sense and Sensibility, Austen perfected the technique of free indirect discourse that she had in (...)
  • 10 Even though there is a more obvious connection between Burney’s Cecilia and Austen’s Pride and Prej (...)
  • 11 In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), Marilyn Butler has convincingly demonstrated the subtle (...)
  • 12 For a more detailed analysis of the intricate use of wills in Sense and Sensibility’s complex inher (...)

19Northanger Abbey may have been the first novel written by Austen, but it is Sense and Sensibility8 that was accepted for publication in 1811, more than a decade after its first version as an epistolary novel9 drafted in the troubled context of the counter-revolutionary 1790s. The novel’s concern with the transmission of property in its opening chapters echoes Frances Burney’s use of the inheritance plot,10 before taking on other ideological connotations inherent in the politicized debate11 of the 1790s, marked by the repercussions of the French Revolution:12

The old Gentleman died; his will was read, and like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure. He was neither so unjust, nor so ungrateful, as to leave his estate from his nephew;—but he left it to him on such terms as destroyed half the value of the bequest. Mr Dashwood had wished for it more for the sake of his wife and daughters than for himself or his son: but to his son, and to his son’s son, a child of four years old, it was secured, in such a way, as to leave to himself no power of providing for those who were most dear to him, and who most needed a provision, by any charge on the estate, or by any sale of its valuable woods. (3‒4)

  • 13 Like ‘Old Nick’, ‘the Old Gentleman’ is another name for the Devil.
  • 14 John Dashwood’s ‘improvements’ on his estate testify to his cold economic approach to land and to h (...)
  • 15 Margaret Anne Doody aptly remarks that some of the place names chosen by Austen are quite telling: (...)
  • 16 There are several well-known parallelisms between Austen’s life and the recurring representation of (...)

20Embodying the arbitrariness of the patriarchal system and the imperative of patrilineal continuity which outweigh the fate of individuals, the never individuated ‘old Gentleman’13’s will not only leaves Henry Dashwood, the tenant for life, powerless: it further dispossesses his unprovided widow and three daughters, thereby fracturing the family by dismissing the female branch14. If the existence of a will sometimes served to mitigate the negative impact of entails by allowing women to have their share of money and valuable goods, ironically enough, Austen uses the motif in her plot to stress the moral failings of landlords who would not provide for the most vulnerable members of their families. As a consequence, the heroines are exiled from the secure and timeless landed estate of Norland15, deprived of a comfortable lifestyle, and forced to live on a reduced domestic budget16—not to mention their dwindling expectations in the marriage market. While the initial paragraphs had carefully constructed the unquestionable respectability of the Dashwood family from a patriarchal perspective, ‘long settled in Sussex . . .  at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations’, they had gained ‘the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance’ (3), Austen’s sharp irony deconstructs the very ideal of ‘family’ in the next chapters by showing how the main heir, John Dashwood, ignores the moral obligations traditionally related to the possession of land. Moreover, the heroines’ financial plight is aggravated by the ill-will of their greedy half-brother’s wife, who insists on keeping wealth consolidated in the patrilineal line:

‘I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. . . .  Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that?—They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! And as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something’. (10)

21In Fanny Dashwood’s mean deconstruction of Henry Dashwood’s last words, the recurrence of the auxiliary is tantamount to an incantation, especially as she uses it to talk her husband out of his solemn promise to his dying father. The ‘will’ as a legal document has thus been turned into a haunting term whose repetition works to annihilate the sacredness of oral authority. This episode allows Austen to avoid any Manichean representation since money in the power of miserly women could also lead to harmful abuse.

22That Austen’s exploration of inheritance as inseparable from a series of duties and a code of manners goes beyond Burney’s vindication of dependent women obviously had to do with her political concern that the elite’s increasingly cold-hearted economic sense would lead to the transvaluation of traditional morality. Harold Perkin recalls the crucial role played by landowners in close-knit communities in Austen’s time: ‘Only the landowner was both competent and disinterested enough to be entrusted with responsibility for the general welfare’ (Perkin 28). Now, the erosion of the ancient obligations of the gentry towards their dependents conjured the dire possibility of social fragmentation at a time when the repercussions of the French Revolution still resonated in Great Britain. Hence the political and ideological significance of the trope of inheritance, especially after the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):

You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Rights, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity. By this means our constitution preserves an unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and an house of commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors.
Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement. (Burke 33‒34)

23Burke’s premise that the English government must be regarded as a family was meant to convey a sense of inter-generational continuity and cohesion, and emphasise the soundness inherent in English institutions, especially as compared with France. By placing security in the linear family, this analogy also presented the aristocratic family as a check upon selfish behaviours, stressing the ‘hereditarily-generated’ benevolence of this class. That Jane Austen shared Burke’s vision of an organic society in which landed estates ought to epitomise a respectable tradition is quite clear in Pride and Prejudice (1813) and in Emma (1816) since both Darcy and Knightley embody the figure of the benevolent, dutiful, and responsible Burkean heir. Austen, however, was well aware that emergent capitalist practices could turn male relatives like John Dashwood into greedy heirs, threatening the transmission not only of family estates, but of a worthy moral and social heritage in which religious principles, morals, and manners ideally existed in mutually supportive relations. In Sense and Sensibility, the artificial magic of the marriage plot puts an end to the two heroines’ nomadic life by enabling their reintegration into comfortable homes with loving husbands and gratifying social roles. Yet, the ending suggests that the fragmentation of society will endure, since the Dashwood sisters’ tiny community lives apart from the selfish money-oriented characters who thrive thanks to the confiscation of the ‘family’ inheritance.

24Austen’s commitment to the vindication of moral values—namely, a symbolic heritage of organic nationhood and communal economy—shines through her approach to her work, conceived as her intellectual legacy. Tellingly, she talked of her novels in fond maternal terms: ‘I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child’ (Letters 71.182). In another letter to a niece who had just given birth to a daughter, Austen puts on the same level the new-born baby and her new novel, for writing for publication enabled her to contribute both to the family budget and, symbolically enough for an unmarried woman, to the continuity of the line: ‘As I wish very much to see your Jemima, I am sure you will like to see my Emma & have therefore great pleasure in sending it for your perusal’ (Letters 135.310).

25Most noticeably, Emma exemplifies an interesting transition in Austen’s representation of women’s relations to property and inheritance: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite the best blessings of existence’ (1.1). After the encouraging financial and critical success of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Austen felt self-confident enough to move away from depictions of financial vulnerability for her heroines and consider a more active approach to the economy, thereby reflecting the ambitious professional claims of her class in terms of social status. In Persuasion (1818), such women as Anne Eliot, Mrs Croft, Nurse Rooke or Lady Russell are thus represented as more skilful managers of the domestic budget and even the estate than Sir Walter Eliot, an irresponsible, vain, and spendthrift landowner.

  • 17 Speculation is a significant motif in Austen’s last unfinished novel, Sanditon, written in 1817. Fo (...)

26Beyond Austen’s oeuvre, Persuasion may be regarded as an emblematic novel, for it dramatizes the shift from the inheritance plot based on the commitment to the stability of land, the preservation of the past, and genealogical continuity to a new conception of property and value marked by instability, insecurity, and speculation.17 With the heir of the estate’s intention to ‘bring the ancestral home to the hammer’ (135), money as cash turns into a cynical and unstable substitute for tradition and customs, foreshadowing the preoccupation with the cash-nexus relationships that define mid-Victorian novels. Yet, as emphasised by John R. Reed, the inheritance motif kept engrossing the collective imaginary, whether in the novels of Walter Scott, Susan Ferrier, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell or George Eliot: ‘To the reader of nineteenth-century fiction, the subject of inheritance is so familiar as to be almost offensive’ (Reed 268).

27Whereas the emergence of market capitalism led to the growing separation of ethical from financial concerns throughout the Victorian period, Gaskell’s industrial novel North and South (1855) uses the inheritance motif in its final chapters to provide readers with a gratifying ending and an empowered heroine. A strong, sound and healthy woman who comes from the privileged rural south of England, Margaret Hale (an apt family name!) seeks to mitigate the social ills of industrial capitalism as soon as she settles in the bleak manufacturing town of Milton, where she meets Mr Thornton, the charismatic mill owner (whose character owes much to Austen’s Darcy). During their conversations, Margaret learns about strikes, the rates of wages, the intricacies of capital, and labour—laying the ground for George Eliot’s heroine in Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke, who also tries to understand the main principles of political economy. As she engages with the harsh economic realities of the industrial city, Margaret comes to embody the novel’s central precept that social reform depends on private ethics. She tries to convince Thornton that the moral standards of personal relations (such as charity, patience, sympathy, cooperation) should also apply to the relations between classes in order to achieve a cooperative relationship.

28After the loss of her parents, and of Mr Bell, her godfather, she is faced with the question of her own future and her need to find a meaningful channel for her energy. Meanwhile, Thornton is stripped of his mill after his workers’ violent strike, forced to ‘give up the business in which he had been so long engaged with so much honour and success, and look out for a subordinate situation’ (426). Now, in a final twist, Gaskell chooses to provide Margaret with Mr Bell’s legacy, which turns her into Thornton’s landowner since she inherits the land on which his mills were built. Interestingly enough, by giving Margaret both financial control as an investor in the business and the ascendancy over the master manufacturer through her determination to participate in social reform, this ready money transforms her influence into effective power. She finally consents to marry Thornton after he has acknowledged the value of ‘cultivating some intercourse’ with his workers beyond the mere ‘cash nexus’: ‘We should understand each other better’, so that strikes may not be ‘the bitter, venomous sources of hatred they have hitherto been’ (432).

29This passage both reverses and ironically echoes a scene in Burney’s Cecilia, where the heroine is emphatically reminded of her fate as a dependent woman. As Cecilia desperately needs and claims her 600 pounds, Mr Briggs replies that girls know nothing ‘of the value of money, and ought not to be trusted with it’ . . .  ‘What to do? Throw it in the dirt? Sha’n’t have it, . . .  Keep it for your husband’ (Cecilia 180). In terms of symbolic transmissions, Margaret Hale appears as the modernised version of an unfettered Cecilia who could, at last, manage her own money and even own her husband-to-be’s property. Nevertheless, one may ironically note that Margaret ends up doing just what Cecilia was required to: keep her own money for her husband…

  • 18 See Nancy Henry, ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and Social Transformation’. The Cambridge Companion to Elizabet (...)

30Guided by Unitarian and humanitarian principles, Gaskell was well aware of how fiction might play a significant role in the transformations of society, notably by enlisting readers’ sympathy for workers whose dire predicament often remained invisible.18 With her heroine, she foregrounded inspiring representations for her female readers: Margaret not only uses her inheritance to participate actively in the economy, she also succeeds in advancing a more ethical agenda. Nancy Henry rightfully argues that ‘Gaskell’s approval of women with the knowledge and the means to act is another way of suggesting a social transformation in which better-informed, more powerful women gradually emerge’, especially as ‘those who are naïve in money matters are at risk in the modern economy’ (Henry 159). Resorting to the trope of the fictional happy ending in a novel marked by multiple deaths and by bleak industrial realities, Gaskell suggested new possibilities for her ‘better-informed’ female contemporaries: a woman like Margaret can thus have a fulfilling marriage, take on new responsibilities, and play a gratifying role in a business which she will contribute to reform, thereby benefiting from a very ‘good return’ on the money she inherited. Gaskell’s attempt to ‘civilize capitalism’ and set out a new path for her female contemporaries was a comforting legacy at a time when money gradually came to be thought of as an active agent and dissolving power in the wake of the industrial and financial revolutions.

31As they resorted to the creative tools of fiction to address the legal disabilities of women within plots that intertwine real estate and romance, Burney, Austen, and Gaskell—among others—created a parallel discourse, even a counter discourse that often challenged inherited representations by uncovering the arbitrariness and contingency of the patrilineal ordering of society. Their novels testify to the fact that the female economic imaginary was intensely preoccupied with the very notion of transmission, both from economic and more symbolic perspectives, especially as the tropes of inheritance and transmission enabled these writers to track intersections between literature, the law, economics, and politics. From being mere consumers and dependents, these women experienced a new sense of agency as they produced varied cultural contents and circulated increasingly empowering representations for their contemporaries. While writing for publication became a compensatory form of transmission, they could educate their male and female readers alike to economic realities, help them master the principles of domestic economy, manage the estate or the domestic budget, thereby addressing an increasingly complex industrial and financial economy.

32In her genealogy of women writers, Virginia Woolf also paid homage to George Eliot (1819‒1880). Now, in Middlemarch, Eliot’s final depiction of her inspiring heroine, Dorothea Brooke, provides an apt metaphor for the achievements of these women novelists as they passed on transformational economic representations and enduring symbolic legacies to their readers: ‘Her full nature . . .  spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” (Middlemarch, Finale, italics mine). The prevailing metaphor of expansiveness not only connotes high spirits, generosity, richness, abundance or magnificence, but also hints at the fact that their novels fed off one another. Such values further illustrated George Eliot’s opinion on what fiction ought to accomplish in moral and emotional terms: ‘The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies’ (“The Natural History of German Life”, 54), an apt statement which may apply to Burney, Austen, and Gaskell alike.

33Beyond this inspiring cultural legacy, these women writers not only turned the novel into a respectable genre, they actually succeeded in making money, and even embodying their financial success—despite Mr Briggs’s contemptuous assertion in Cecilia that ‘books’ are ‘all lost time’, ‘what do you want with books? Words get no cash!’ (181). Burney, Austen, Gaskell and Eliot definitely proved that statement wrong. Thanks to the 4,000 copies she sold after the publication of Camilla (1796), Frances Burney invested the 2,000 pounds sterling she had earned to build a cottage in Surrey, duly named Camilla Cottage, and Elizabeth Gaskell also bought a house and 4 acres of land in Hampshire with her earnings, thereby proving that these women novelists ‘could turn cultural capital into a material structure, that through the magic of the marketplace, properly exploited, they could write themselves into their own stable and heritable place, which was to become their children’s legacy’ (Gallagher 254). What a well-deserved payback for women who had started out with a deficit of being in relation to their fathers, and to the male line in literature!

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Primary Sources

Anon. The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives. London: W. Bowyer, 1735.

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. New York, London: Norton, 1993.

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1816. New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2002.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 1818. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1818. New York: Norton, 1995.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. 1753. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1768.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790. Oxford: OUP, 1999.

Burney, Frances. Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. 1778. Ed. Edward A. Bloom. Oxford: OUP, 2002.

Burney, Frances. Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress. 1782. Ed. Peter Sabor and Margaret Anne Doody. Oxford: OUP, 1999.

Eliot, George. ‘The Natural History of German Life’. Westminster Review LXVI (July 1856): 51‒79.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871‒72. London, New York: Penguin, 1994.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. Jane Austen’s Letters. Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Richardson, Samuel. The History of Sir Charles Grandison. 1753. London: OUP, 1972.

The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. Ralph M. Wardle. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1928. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

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Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

Comyn, Sarah. Political Economy and the Novel: A Literary History of ‘Homo Economicus’. Houndmills: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2018.

Copeland, Edward W. ‘Money in the Novels of Fanny Burney’. Studies in the Novel 8.1 (Spring 1976): 24‒37.

Copeland, Edward W. Women Writing about Money: Women’s Fiction in England, 1790-1820. Cambridge: CUP, 1995.

Dashwood, Rita J., and Karen Lipsedge. ‘Women and Property in the Long Eighteenth Century’. Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 44 (2021): 335‒41.

Gallagher, Catherine. Nobody’s Story, The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace 1670–1820. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Henry, Nancy. ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and Social Transformation’. The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell. Ed. Jill L. Matus. Cambridge: CUP, 2007. 148‒63.

Massei-Chamayou, Marie-Laure. La Représentation de l’argent dans les romans de Jane Austen : L’Être et l’avoir, Collection Des Idées et des femmes, dir. Guyonne Leduc. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012.

McDonagh, Briony. Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700–1830. London: Routledge, 2018.

Perkin, Harold. Origins of Modern English Society. London: Routledge, 1991.

Reed, John R. Victorian Conventions. Athens: Ohio UP, 1975.

Tuite, Clara. Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon. Cambridge: CUP, 2002.

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1 In Elite Women and the Agricultural Landscape, 1700–1830, Briony McDonagh has convincingly challenged the long-held representation of genteel women as irrevocably trapped in merely domestic roles by showing that ‘somewhere in excess of 3 million acres in England were owned by women in the later eighteenth century and more than 6 million acres in Great Britain as a whole’ (27). Such estimates suggest that over 10 per cent of land in Georgian Britain belonged to female landowners who thus took on the usually masculine roles of estate managers, builders and improvers.

2 In her letters, Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, lamented at the prospect of being a governess: ‘I by no means like the proposal of being a governess—I should be shut out from society—and . . .  on every side be surrounded by unequals” (The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft 110). In Austen’s Emma (1814), Jane Fairfax’s mention of ‘a trade in human flesh’ has disturbing connotations: ‘“I was not thinking of the slave-trade”, replied Jane; “governess-trade was all that I had in view; widely different, certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”’ (243).

3 Generally, women only had access to an allowance of pocket money, or pin money, to be spent on clothes, amusements or charities after their dowry was invested in government funds and this amount of money was specified in the marriage contract ahead of the wedding.

4 In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act reformed the law on divorce and widened its availability to the middle-classes by abolishing the matrimonial jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to transfer it to the civil courts. With the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, married women could keep their property in case of separation. In 1873, the Custody of Infants Act allowed mothers to keep custody of their children under sixteen years of age and in 1878 the rules of divorce in case of brutality were relaxed. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 strengthened the right of women to their own property, a provision confirmed in 1884 and 1893.

5 Commenting on Jane Austen’s achievement despite the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her, Virginia Woolf remarks that it was ‘easier’ for women deprived of a room of their own and confined to the common and often noisy sitting room ‘to write prose and fiction there than to write poetry or a play. Less concentration is required’ (77).

6 Evelina is nameless because unacknowledged by her father. Most tellingly, while reflecting on unnamed women considered as Nobodies in a society full of self-inflated Somebodies, Frances Burney was gaining fame and substance as a writer who managed to shape both the tradition of women novelists and the novel of manners.

7 In the preface to Evelina, Burney made an interesting statement in terms of symbolic legacies as she both paid homage to her favourite writers, claiming their influence upon her, and set out her own original ambition: ‘However I may feel myself enlightened by the knowledge of Johnson, charmed with the eloquence of Rousseau, softened by the pathetic powers of Richardson, and exhilarated by the wit of Fielding, and humour of Smollet ; I yet presume not to attempt pursuing the same ground which they have tracked’ (Evelina, Preface 10).

8 For a convincing discussion of Sense and Sensibility as ‘a transitional novel’ which both ‘outdates sensibility in its parodic reproduction of sensibility as a fashion’ and attests to the ‘successful transformation of counter-revolutionary didacticism to discretion’, see Clara Tuite, Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon, 6162.

9 In Sense and Sensibility, Austen perfected the technique of free indirect discourse that she had inherited from the works of Frances Burney and Ann Radcliffe as a new sophisticated mode of representing female interiority.

10 Even though there is a more obvious connection between Burney’s Cecilia and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) whose title probably stemmed from the last pages of Burney’s novel—Remember; if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination’ (930)—, the representation of inheritance in the ‘light and bright and sparkling’ Pride and Prejudice (Letters 80.203) is not as grim as in Sense and Sensibility, where inheriting is synonymous with a form of dispossession, like in Cecilia, for the exposed heroines.

11 In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), Marilyn Butler has convincingly demonstrated the subtle ideological engagement of Austen’s fiction with post-Revolutionary debates, insisting that her novels can be considered, in some sense, as political documents. Adopting the perspective of a Christian moralist in novels which repeatedly dramatize the wretched consequences of individualism, Austen appears as a proponent of order, stability, and tradition.

12 For a more detailed analysis of the intricate use of wills in Sense and Sensibility’s complex inheritance plot, and of the inheritance trope in Austen’s novels, see Marie-Laure Massei-Chamayou, La Représentation de l’argent dans les romans de Jane Austen, p. 241-76.

13 Like ‘Old Nick’, ‘the Old Gentleman’ is another name for the Devil.

14 John Dashwood’s ‘improvements’ on his estate testify to his cold economic approach to land and to his utter disregard for tradition: his felling of ‘the old walnut trees’ to build a greenhouse for his wife echoes his cutting off of the female branch of the ‘family’ to prevent a further drain on his income.

15 Margaret Anne Doody aptly remarks that some of the place names chosen by Austen are quite telling: in Pride and Prejudice, ‘it is an irony that the estate is called “Longbourne’” (as in “long border” or “long destination”) for it is not the long bourne of the Bennet women; they cannot settle. So is the Dashwood estate “Norland”, because that is what it gives its daughters—no land’ (Introduction, Sense and Sensibility x).

16 There are several well-known parallelisms between Austen’s life and the recurring representation of the economic predicament of women in her fiction: after the death of her father in 1805, Jane Austen describes herself as ‘a Sister sunk in Poverty’ (Letters 45.108) but contrary to what happens in Sense and Sensibility, Jane’s brothers came to the rescue financially. However, in 1817, as Jane was growing weaker, she suffered a relapse after learning about the terms of her uncle’s will: James Leigh-Perrot had left everything to his wife for her lifetime, with a reversion to Jane’s already well-to-do brother James, and his heirs, without any mention of Jane and Cassandra Austen. In a letter to her brother Charles, Jane cannot hide her utter disappointment: ‘A few days ago my complaint appeared removed, but I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle’s will brought on a relapse & I was so ill on Friday & thought myself so likely to be worse that I could not but press for Cassandras returning with Frank after the funeral last night. I am the only one of the legatees who has been so silly, but a weak body must excuse weak nerves. My Mother has borne the forgetfulness of her extremely well. Her expectations for herself were never beyond the extreme of moderation & she thinks with you that my Uncle always looked forward to surviving her (Letters 157.338-39).

17 Speculation is a significant motif in Austen’s last unfinished novel, Sanditon, written in 1817. For a contextualised analysis of the social, moral, and ethical consequences of a pervasive speculative economy, see Sarah Comyn, ‘The Speculative World of Sanditon’, Political Economy and the Novel: A Literary History of ‘Homo Economicus’, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2018. 63‒92.

18 See Nancy Henry, ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and Social Transformation’. The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell, ed. Jill L. Matus. Cambridge: CUP, 2007. 148‒63.

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Marie-Laure Massei-Chamayou, « Economic and Symbolic Transmissions in Women’s Novels: Frances Burney, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 99 Printemps | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 11 juin 2024. URL :

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Marie-Laure Massei-Chamayou

Marie-Laure Massei-Chamayou is a senior lecturer in English Studies at the University of Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne, a member of the Centre d’Histoire du xixe siècle (Paris 1 University/Sorbonne University), and an associate member of PHARE (Paris 1 University). She is the author of two books on Jane Austen, La Représentation de l’argent dans les romans de Jane Austen: L’Être et l’avoir (L’Harmattan, 2012), and Between Secrets and Screens: Sentiments under Scrutiny (CNED/PUF, 2015), as well as articles dealing with economic and social transformations, power relations, the transmission of inheritance or the symbolic meanings of money in Austen’s novels and letters. Her current research and publications explore the evolving representations of money, economic questions and financial or symbolic transmissions in the works of Eliza Parsons, Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot.
Marie-Laure Massei-Chamayou est maître de conférences en Études Anglophones à l’université Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne, membre du Centre d’Histoire du xixe Siècle (Université Paris 1/Sorbonne Université) et membre associée au laboratoire PHARE (Université Paris 1). Spécialiste de l’œuvre de Jane Austen, elle a publié deux ouvrages, La Représentation de l’argent dans les romans de Jane Austen: L’Être et l’avoir (L’Harmattan, 2012) et Between Secrets and Screens: Sentiments under Scrutiny (CNED/PUF, 2015), ainsi que des articles traitant des mutations économiques et sociales, des rapports de pouvoir, de la transmission de l’héritage ou de la symbolique de l’argent dans les romans ou la correspondance d’Austen. Ses recherches et autres publications portent également sur l’évolution des représentations liées à l’argent, à l’économie et à la transmission dans les œuvres des femmes de lettres britanniques aux xviiie et xixe siècles, telles Eliza Parsons, Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Gaskell et George Eliot.

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