Book Review

London, April. Women and Property in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

In April London’s book we receive a view of women as the outsiders in the negotiation of both real and literary property. For London the English idea of property is not just an autonomous concept to be defined out of the relevant passage in John Locke, contrasted as to liberal and civic humanist, and then discovered operating, in a manifest or latent fashion, in the fiction of the period. Instead, through a subtle and patient exploration of a wide band of canonical and non-canonical fiction in Britain in the last six decades of the eighteenth century, Professor London finds property everywhere entangled with women and men, gender and genre, the georgic and the pastoral. The reading of these last two Classical genres in the most original feature of London’s study. Thus, in London’s reading of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Clarissa’s disciplined self-making, most explicit in the improvements she makes in managing the estate she inherits from her grandfather, is associated with the civilizing labor of the georgic. The aristocratic associations of pastoral luxury and ease are associated with Lovelace, and in a more tortured fashion, with the authoritarian and acquisitive aims of the Harlowe family’s marriage plots. By the end of the novel, Clarissa’s labors (of writing and self-construction) are appropriated, through the editorial labors of Belford, for a civic humanist project of public good that is coded as masculine. London argues a similar movement toward masculine consolidation of property in women’s bodies and writing in Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison. Over the course of the extended survey of novels and other texts – including accounts of the nostalgic return to pastoral in male centered sentimental fiction, like The Man of Feeling, novels of “community and confederacy,” and novels of radicalism and reaction from the 1790s – Professor London demonstrates that a complex imbrications of women and property enable this period to appropriate the property of another. London also convinced me of the supple usefulness of a rigorous conception of georgic and pastoral. London’s reading of the eighteenth century offers a rather gloomy (albeit powerful) rejoinder to those more hopeful accounts of the novel’s rise written by Ian Watt and Nancy Armstrong and Catherine Gallagher. Throughout London’s book emphasis falls upon the constraints working within the figuration of women and/as property. By London’s account, in the game to determine the nature and possession of property, female autonomy is usually an illusion, men hold all the trumps, and almost always control the property. While there is an internal rigor to this argument, London’s book tracks the fate of Richardson’s most celebrated heroine rather too closely. While Clarissa gives up the estate she inherited from her grandfather to the rapacious Harlowe family, and her literary estate to Belford, Clarissa also prototypes a virtuous female agency through writing that would inspire many women, including a generation attached to Richardson, to turn their writing into literary property in the last five decades of the eighteenth century. I wonder how London would explain how the spectacle of (Clarissa’s) expropriation incites many acts of (self-) appropriation.

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