Romantic women writers and the question of economic progress

Over the past twenty years there has been increasing interest in the interdisciplinary study of literature and economics. Literary critics have been alert to the staging of economic ideas in works of literature and to the interplay of the print market and aesthetic developments. Recent publications have shown the central place of political economy in Romantic-era culture, and the way the status of women is used as a measure of material progress in conjectural histories from the mid-18th century onwards. My project will take this enquiry in a new direction by focusing on women writers who entered into debate on economic change and questioned the progressivist model, employing a variety of literary forms to convey their arguments. I am interested in how, in a variety of ways, writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Jane Austen chose to distance themselves from the identification with progress, and engage instead in critical examination of modernity, whether by addressing consumer culture, commercialism and the slave trade, questioning imperialism, the system of public credit, and the new dominance of finance capitalism, or re-examining gender hierarchy as an anomalous feature of the new social order. The main aim is to contribute to a paradigm shift, locating women not just as the objects of historiography and economic discourse, but as active thinkers and commentators.

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James Gillray’s The New Morality, published in The Anti-Jacobin Review in 1798, has been described as a ‘Who’s Who of sedition’ at the height of British reaction against the French Revolution. Titles by Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Robinson are among those spilling from the cornucopia of the radical press, and this study will argue that women writers challenged economic orthodoxies, as well as the political status quo. Image courtesy of Chawton House Library, Hampshire, UK.

In The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England: Literature, Commerce and Luxury (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), I examined disputes over the consequences of economic change in the early 18th century: corruption or improvement? The new book will explore a very different era, in which progressivist arguments are in the process of being hardened into unchallengeable orthodoxy, and political economy is emerging as a specialised discipline. Yet questions continued to be asked about the human cost of national prosperity; the effects of the division of labour; the nature of the links between war, trade and finance; the ethics of consumerism and laissez-faire; the reality of the ‘trickle-down’ process; the ways in which capitalism seemed to exacerbate rather than remedy some of the worst features of the pre-modern state. The development of Romantic anti-economism has been frequently discussed with reference to the male Lake Poets and their followers. But what did their female contemporaries have to say? Existing studies are a blank in this respect. I will suggest the mediated relation of women to modernisation gave them a distinctive view on economic issues that casts the debates in a new light.

Women writers of the 18th century had gained from their association with socio-economic improvement. It brought them attention from the reading public, a degree of deference, a hearing as the voice of the new age of civility. But this project will test the thesis that in critiquing the idea of progress, women writers attained intellectual freedom and created an important legacy for the continuing discussion on capitalism and progress. The literary writings to be discussed are bold, ambitious and visionary: designed to speak to posterity and, it will be argued, capable of illuminating our own understanding of the question of progress and the association of modernity with economic growth.

Professor Emma Clery
University of Southampton

Emma was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in 2012.