Monday, 5 August 2013

Funny money: Jane Austen and the 'consumer society' of 18th-century England

Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin on the Bank of England £10 note
We were met with the news last week that Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin on the Bank of England £10 note from 2017. The decision followed a high-profile public campaign against having no women represented on Bank of England notes besides the Queen.

I initially intended to write this blog post about Charles Darwin as I assumed (correctly) there would be a larger variety of articles on him in our online archive however I couldn't pass up the opportunity to connect the new face of Bank of England currency (literally the face of consumerism) to the 2008 article "'The mystical character of commodities': the consumer society in 18th-century England" from Post-Medieval Archaeology. The article's author Ross J Wilson presents an alternative response to the 'consumer society' hypothesis for 18th-century England and uses the later works of Jane Austen to argue that goods should not be seen only as commodities.

"Eighteenth-century England is often claimed to be the origin of consumerism, where the conditions of capitalism engineered the consumer society which appears so pervasive in our contemporary world. Over the last 20 years historians, economists and sociologists have considered that consumerism has its roots in the commodity fetishism that was seen to emerge in Georgian England. They have pointed to the ‘object crazes’ of the period, the advent of mass-production and rising levels of affluence as evidence of this trend. Archaeologists working on the period have tended to echo this view, observing that the influx of goods and materials into society heralded an altered ‘world-view’ and an acceptance of the new commodity-driven society... An alternative account to the ‘consumer society’ argument can emerge from courtesy books, novels and the proliferation of object-centred fiction. Moving beyond large-scale processes, this study focuses on the individual level, upon the manipulation of objects by people, and of people by objects."

Dr Wilson goes on to demonstrate his point explicitly through the fiction of Jane Austen:

"Novels can be used to assess the nature of the relationship between individuals and objects. They detail the way characters interacted with objects, not solely with regard to the development of plot but to make the character believable. Objects indicated the character’s position on the social scale and showed how such individuals appropriated and were appropriated by the material culture which surrounded them. Although published in the early 19th century, the later novels of Jane Austen, namely Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, demonstrate this relationship between individual and object. Austen’s few detailed accounts of objects illuminate the relationship between material culture and late 18th-century society...They indicate how objects were used by individuals to express desires, to internalize values; they also show how objects used individuals, imposed the values of society, and formed behaviour and perception. They provide an alternative way of viewing the use of objects in the 18th century apart from the notions of the ‘consumer society’."

>> Read the full article for free

No comments:

Post a Comment