Enterprising Women in Novels of Manners: The Social Economies of Austen, Thackeray and Wharton

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Virginia Tech

Novels of manners exhibit social economies that bear some metaphorical resemblance to literal economies. In England and America, before the women's movement and the introduction of large numbers of women into the workforce, this was the woman's economy: the economy of manners. This thesis examines three novels of manners and argues that there is a sustaining economic metaphor to characterize each author's attitude toward the manners economy they portray. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, social economies are controlled by an invisible hand that can be trusted to reward deserving economic agents, and punish the undeserving. William Thackeray's Vanity Fair shows how social economies can be impacted by speculative bubbles, when some commodities are temporarily given more value than they really hold. Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth portrays a society which has gone off the gold standard of virtue, that values its social currencies without that organizing principle of virtue to give them stability. Each novel has some relationship with the codes of etiquette of its day, and contains many of the same currencies, though valued at dramatically different rates in each context. Female protagonists must take stock of the prevailing economic conditions, but their success or failure will have as much to do with the function or dysfunction of those conditions as with their own social choices.

Novels of Manners, Etiquette, Manners, Conduct, Women, Economics, Austen, Thackeray, Wharton