Posted by: Lisa Maruca | March 10, 2010

18c Women and the “other” economy

Vinny’s comment about English middle class women denying marriage as an economic transaction at a time when other bodies were being shipped across the Atlantic and sold (indeed, to support the relationships of those privileged enough to deny the connection) brought to my mind an interesting C18 novel comment on a similar topic.  Here, though, it is the unmarried women, forced to come to grips with her value as a commodity, who makes the connection.  In this exchange from Jane Austen’s Emma, the single woman Jane Fairfax discusses the necessity of becoming a governess with the nouveau riche, pretentious Mrs. Elton, who nags her about finding a position:

“But, my dear child, the time is drawing near; here is April, and June, or say even July, is very near, with such business to accomplish before us. Your inexperience really amuses me! A situation such as you deserve, and your friends would require for you, is no every-day occurrence, is not obtained at a moment’s notice; indeed, indeed, we must begin inquiring directly.”

“Excuse me, ma’am, but this is by no means my intention; I make no inquiry myself, and should be sorry to have any made by my friends. When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something, —offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.”

“Oh, my dear! human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, 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. But I only mean to say that there are advertising offices, and that by applying to them I should have no doubt of very soon meeting with something that would do.” (76)

This is typical Austen–teasing us with the topical and transforming it into the personal, her politics always ambiguous.  But considering how the governess role resonates across the century–indeed, through to Jane Eyre, a novel about problematic marriages rife with the rhetoric of slavery and liberationthese seem dots worth connecting.


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