Thursday, February 12, 2015

Marilyn Morris's "Sex, Money and Personal Character in Eighteenth-Century British Politics"

Marilyn Morris is associate professor of history at the University of North Texas and the author of The British Monarchy and the French Revolution.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Sex, Money and Personal Character in Eighteenth-Century British Politics, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls on the second page of Chapter 4: “Court, Courtship and Domestic Virtue”—
...affairs of the heart both facilitated valuable communication across party lines and led to dangerous connections, especially when they involved members of the royal family. The pressure to find a suitable love match created new opportunities for politicians to forge personal bonds as they helped one another through the nerve-wracking pre-marital negotiations, but could just as well bring jealousies and estrangements.

Domesticity’s very definition and nature have been hotly debated since Lawrence Stone presented his model of companionate marriage born of eighteenth-century affective individualism. Scholars have found evidence of the trends Stone describes occurring much earlier and have disputed his notions of patriarchy, household composition and women’s matrimonial experience, among other things. It remains undisputed, however, that a growing interest in the challenges and rewards of achieving wedded bliss took place in didactic literature and fiction, starting with criticism of mercenary matches at the end of the seventeenth century and, by the early nineteenth, blossoming into the ideal of the tender, loving family as a refuge from the bustle of public business. Literary trends, of course, had a nebulous relation to life. Conduct literature presented numerous models of marriage and novels required marital strife or adultery for plot purposes; nonetheless, this literary attention did reflect the time’s social pressure to marry. In the closing decades of the seventeenth century, the increasing number of people who remained single attracted concern, with various genres of writing dispensing pity on the ‘superannuated virgin’ as a victim of the short supply of eligible men. Other publications provoked controversy by contemplating the pleasures of the single life and advocating expansion of women’s educational opportunities. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the sinister figure of the ‘old maid’ dominated the discursive field because the economic opportunities that emerged between the 1690s and 1700s allowed women to be single by choice when England’s involvement in war raised anxieties about the birth rate and encouraged a political and cultural investment in the reproductive nuclear family. Aristocratic women countered with the idea of rational domesticity based on choice, even if it meant choosing not to marry. Nevertheless, bachelors continued to come under fire. The stereotype of the effeminate fop stigmatized men who rejected the now masculinised private domain of domestic responsibility.
This page captures one aspect of my investigation into the consequences of basing a political leader’s fitness to govern on an assessment of his (and now her) personal character. The earlier chapters explain how politicians’ private tendency to judge one another on the basis of their success with women and money increasingly crept into political propaganda. While Chapter 4 reveals the messy ethical constructs resulting from the gap between the new valorisation of domesticity and politicians’ actual attitudes and behaviour, Chapter 5 shows similar contradictions in moral principles respecting spending, credit and debt. Sporting the proper degree of personal finery involved achieving a level of expenditure that managed to rest on an ever-shifting line between parsimony and profligacy. As national and personal debt escalated, economic reform schemes came to nought as partisan posturing made financial ethics hopelessly ambiguous. Finally, the book turns to observations from the peripheries of the political world to demonstrate how the illusion of knowing the inner character of public figures by outward appearances shaped opinions regarding political policies, and how the consequent culture of hypocrisy brought heartache to families and friends of the ruling elite.

I first thought that surely Ford Madox Ford had his tongue placed firmly in his cheek when he suggested that on page 99, “the quality of the whole work will be revealed to you.” Uncannily, however, page 99 contains the issue that tripped me up. Based on the research I conducted for The British Monarchy and the French Revolution (Yale UP, 1998), my project rested on the premise that political principles and behaviour did change with George III’s domestication of monarchy. After a few false starts, I realized that anti-domesticity was the interesting story here. I also began seeing connections between the impossible domestic ideal touted in print and the wildly inconsistent principles of financial probity that featured in press coverage of the royal family.
Learn more about Sex, Money and Personal Character in Eighteenth-Century British Politics at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue