The misfortunes of women of fortune

These days, I’m a journalist, editor, wife and mom — but before I was any of these things, I was a student of 18th-century literature. I devoted nearly half my twenties to the subject, which turned out to be a surprisingly effective way of preparing for the different roles I juggle today. (It also helps explain why I now write about news and entertainment rather than the influence of Richardson and Fielding on their female contemporaries, but if anyone wants to chat about the latter topic, I'll buy the drinks.)

So, when I think about women, money and inheritance – top topics here at Shopping for Happiness – my thoughts inevitably turn to novels. Fictional heroines (then as now) are usually notable for their beauty and virtue rather than their wealth; indeed, almost every novel with a romance plot ends with the woman marrying a man richer than herself. 

But for my money, the two most affecting and memorable 18th-century heroines buck that trend. They’re heiresses – and wealth causes nothing but trouble for these lovely ladies. 

Let’s start with one of the most important novels in literary history: 1748’s Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. I used to be obsessed with this novel, though I haven’t re-read it lately. (I did try about 18 months ago when I was seeking a comforting read during my mom’s final illness, but it wasn’t the right kind of book for distraction purposes; the heroine’s plight is just too distressing.)

As Clarissa begins, the beautiful, virtuous heroine is a prisoner in her own home; her greedy family wants to force her to marry a loathsome man who can further their social ambitions.

Clarissa's brother and sister are eager to see her humbled and punished by this marriage — in no small part because their grandfather left his estate to Clarissa. This early financial independence triggers the heroine’s doom. She tries to mitigate her “crime" by giving control of her inheritance over to her dad, but this only leaves him hungry for more paternal control.

Theoretically, at any point in her perilous, 1,500 page journey, Clarissa could claim her estate and escape her oppressors (who soon include scheming rake Lovelace); she states many times that all she wants is to retire to her dairy house, raise her chickens and devote herself to good works. That freedom to choose her own path is exactly what first her father, and then Lovelace, simply cannot allow and what Clarissa herself won’t claim, even at the cost of her life. (I like to think she'd make different choices today, when she'd trade her letters for texts with her very modern friend Anna Howe.)

Frances Burney

Frances Burney

The thorny issues around female inheritance also inspired Frances Burney, whom Virginia Woolf called “the mother of English fiction.” In 1782’s Cecilia, Or, Memoirs of an Heiress, the orphaned heroine inherits two fortunes: her father’s moderate one, and her uncle’s vast estate. The latter comes with a crucial caveat: Cecilia’s future husband must take her uncle’s last name, Beverly.

Like Clarissa, Cecilia is a charitable paragon surrounded by fortune-hunters, and those who should be her protectors become her tormentors. One of her guardians is a compulsive gambler and extorts huge sums from Cecilia. (The scenes in which the desperate, wild-eyed man threatens to kill himself — and spoiler alert, eventually does —  are among the most shocking in any 18th-century novel.)

When Cecilia finally falls in love, her inheritance stands in the way. Mortimer Delvile loves her, but he’s the last male of his line and won’t give up his family name. Still, money matters; his proud father insists Mortimer wed someone with enough cash to restore their crumbling estate. With her uncle’s fortune unavailable due to the name clause and her father’s fortune lost to predators, Cecilia — once the most eligible of brides — is a figure of contempt to her would-be father-in-law. She's reduced to wandering the streets of London in the haze of a mental breakdown before she finally ends up with the man she loves, but not much else in the way of financial or familial sustenance. It’s not your typical romantic ending. 

Both Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney recognized that a woman’s money can act as a prism to reveal the character of everyone around her. It's not a pretty picture. Envy and malice abound, and the path to romantic love is fraught with peril for women of independent means. 

The novelists who followed weren't much more optimistic (with the notable exception of Jane Austen, whose one wealthy heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is delightfully untroubled by her prosperity). Authors from Charles Dickens to George Eliot to Henry James to Thomas Hardy depicted the many ways rich women could be made unhappy, fall prey to fortune-hunters or lose their reputations. 

Judging by the way today's most popular online sites like the Daily Mail lavish their (not uncritical) attention on fabulously wealthy female celebrities (many of whom started out as heiresses), you might think that nothing has changed. 

Of course, both novels and the Daily Mail are mostly fictional and have a built-in motive to manufacture drama. What about real life? Is there something especially interesting – or worrying – about a rich woman, compared to a rich man? What do you think? Also, if you have a favourite book that features an heiress (happy or otherwise), please share that too. The holidays are coming and I need reading material!