Jun 22 2011 6:00pm

Vulgar Money Talk

Stacks of Coins by Images_of_Money via Flickr“Ten thousand a year!”

One of my favorite things about Jane Austen (in addition to the language, the plotting, the characters, the conflict resolution—you get the idea) is the money. Austen speaks plainly about money.

To my mind, love and money have a lot in common. The same language applies: you make it, you lose it, you crave it, you manage it, you save it. Both are hard-won. It’s not socially acceptable to talk about either one when you walk into a cocktail party. “So, my husband and I were making love the other day…” or “I just cashed my $5000 paycheck.” Ew. How gauche.

As it turns out, I tend toward gauche. I dislike the roundabout subtlety that most people adopt when discussing love or money. So when an author gets straight to the heart of either topic, I am grateful. Joan Wolf has already been justly praised on this blog for her sharp, witty handling of how perceptions of love and money can establish the bedrock of a relationship (or nearly destroy it). Janet Webb’s analysis of the spine-tingling necklace/whore scene in His Lordship’s Mistress was a delicious reminder of one such fulcrum point.

Christmas Wishes by Barbara MetzgerIn some Regency romances, the financial conflict of a character can also reflects a larger social ill, as in Barbara Metzger’s Christmas Wishes. In that book, the honest, if misguided, heroine muses,

“[R]uination was only for ladies of the ton, not poor females. Indigent misses could not afford to worry overmuch about their good names, not when they had to consider their next meal.”

Unfortunately, that practical line of thinking on the part of the heroine, Juneclaire Beaumont, made her subsequent refusal of the Earl’s marriage proposal nearly incomprehensible. My problem with heroines who spout “True Love or Nothing!” is that half the time it doesn’t seem worth the sacrifice. Juneclaire’s Earl, Merry Jordan, was a good guy. Sure, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet’s refusal of the preening idiot Mr. Collins added to her already dynamic character. Juneclaire’s refusal of the heroic Merry Jordan, however, just made her look feckless.

Which brings me to Charlotte Lucas, Austen’s down-to-earth realist who served as a foil to Lizzie Bennet’s love-or-nothing dreamer. It’s funny how different characters elicit different reactions after multiple readings. I used to think Charlotte Lucas was such a waste of space, a doormat, a fool.

And now as I watch her pour her own tea, in her own receiving room, with her own china, gazing upon her own private view out to the garden (on the opposite side of the house from where she encourages her husband to spend most of his time), I kind of love her. Let’s face it, we can’t all end up at Pemberley! So her husband’s an ass? So what? I’m sure you and I know plenty of people who are married to asses, but at least Charlotte has taken care to ensure her own form of independence within that world. She is a bird-in-hand type of investor and I don’t judge that as harshly as I used to.

Financial status can also work as a metaphor for the balance of power within the primary relationship. So many books (romances or not) address this precarious equilibrium of love and money—Great Gatsby, Sister Carrie—because love and money both hold a power that characters can either wield or suffer under. They become implements of the battlefield.

On a Wicked Dawn by Stephanie LaurensIn Stephanie Laurens’s On a Wicked Dawn—if you can pry your attention away from all that non-stop fornicating—the subtle weaponry of love and money are well sketched. (But seriously, they have sex ALL the time—be forewarned!) The hero, Luc, strives to perpetuate the wealthy heroine’s misapprehension that she is the one rescuing him, marrying him solely to save him from the threat of penury (a threat that, in reality, no longer exists). Luc wants Amelia any way he can have her, and if encouraging her to believe that falsehood gets the girl, then so be it. The book goes on too long and the subplot is unnecessary, but the quintessential tropes of mutual deception and a marriage of convenience are fortified by this strong undercurrent of a power struggle being played out via financial superiority.

Amelia Cynster is a pragmatist after my own heart:

“She’d realized that getting him to marry her first and fall in love with her subsequently was the only way forward…”

She knows what she wants and she goes about getting it. The two arrows in her quiver are her dowry and her feminine wiles and she knows how to use ’em.

Her touch was not shy, but avid—greedy as she spread her fingers wide and flexed them, pressing into the wide muscle banding his chest, then sliding up, then across, possessively tracing as if he were a slave she now owned.

For one instant, held in thrall, he wondered if that were true.

The language (greed, possession, slavery, ownership) is wonderfully fiduciary. And, don’t worry, he gets to “enslave” her in one of the future (copious) love scenes. But all of that is gradually translated into emotional currency:

A need to make her his, to bind her to him—to have her and know her to a degree beyond the carnal. To command her surrender. Complete and absolute.

With his.

Devil Cynster makes a cameo to elucidate this male preoccupation with retaining power. When trying to explain to his wife why it is so difficult for men to actually say the words “I Love You” aloud, he elaborates:

“It’s like giving an oath of fealty—not just by one’s actions acknowledging your sovereign, but offering your sword and accepting and acknowledging another’s power to rule you. [W]e’re conditioned never to give that final, binding oath, not until we’re forced to it. To do so willingly goes against every precept, every ingrained rule.”

“So…does that mean I rule you?”

His lips, an inch from hers, curved wickedly. “That’s the only mitigating factor. Love may rule me, but only because it also rules you.”

When Amelia—finally!—learns Luc is “As rich as bloody Croesus” (all the way on page 412 of 421, poor girl) she is justifiably furious. She was the one who was supposed to be manipulating everything! The flames of passion (never banked for long) and professions of true love remedy all that pesky misunderstanding, of course, but it was a clever resolution nonetheless. Both the hero and the heroine had spent the entire book thinking they were smarter, richer, more seductive, more knowing—more powerful—than the other. The real happiness of their happy ending was in the discovery of total equality—financial and emotional.

As is usually the case with a good romance novel, these books explore deeper themes of emotional interdependence, female and male power struggles, and the contentious nature of marriage, complex issues made palatable when told wittily against a sexy, sparkly backdrop.

Stacks of coins image courtesy of Images_of_Money via Flickr

Megan Mulry recently signed a three book deal with Sourcebooks.

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Janet Webb
1. JanetW
Money money money... I hear the refrain from Donald Trump's signature show ringing in my ears. Money -- written about realistically -- especially in historicals, opens up a Pandora's Box of choices that aren't easy and which have lifelong consequences. When Austen writes about Lizzie's sister Lydia disappearing into the netherworld of London, she's not sweetening the pot with "love will conquer all". Do we respect her less as a novelist because her words delineate a society that is merciless and unforgiving? Not me.

All your excerpts throw up the truth of the times -- money was necessary and Charlotte, far from being stupid, made a calculated decision that allowed her more freedom than continuing to live as a spinster under her father's roof.

I like my historicals full of passion and love and of course I'm looking to be transported into an author's world. But the anchor of money, which so often enters the Marriage of Convenience plot (one of my favourites) adds the reality which, to some extent, I crave in my reading.
Julia Broadbooks
2. Julia Broadbooks
When I first read Lizzie and Darcy's story I was maybe 12 years old. I judged Charlotte as harshly as I judged Lydia. One was all calculating, the other all passion ungoverned by reason. But as the years have gone by I have better understood the harsh realities of a Regency spinster. Today, a woman who marries poorly for money is considered foolish. Two hundred years ago, it was one of the few choices available to a woman who wasn't happy enough to fall in love with a wealthy man. Today, I can't judge that as harshly as I did in my idealistic youth, even if I'm grateful not to be constrained by those choices.
Julia Broadbooks
3. Nena Clements
Nice blog Megan. Lots of great insight. Money and sex makes the world go round.
Carmen Pinzon
4. bungluna
As I read this article and then the comments, I remembered how many heroines in historicals are left in destute states because their mothers married a bad provider 'for love'. And still they often insist on wanting the same fate for themselves. I love the speach given by Marylin Monroe to her would-be father-in-law at the end of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes": "Don't you know a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?" Call me mercenary, but I've never seen the appeal of pennyless men in a society where penury ment a horrific life, if not a death sentence to most women. Of course, it is better to fall in love with a man who is both rich and gorgeous ;-D
Julia Broadbooks
5. Janga
What a provocative essay!

It's easier to be a romantic at 20 than at 27. I wonder what Charlotte Lucas was like at 20, despite her sensibility and intelligence and what Elizabeth Bennett would have become at 27 had she never met Darcy nor seen Pemberley. I always loved teaching Pride and Prejudice because marriage and money were topics about which even the most disinterested of my students had opinions to share.
Julia Broadbooks
6. Lbostwick
Taboo taboo- $ Sex - bring it on MM!
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
7. tnh
Janga, I couldn't properly appreciate Charlotte Lucas when I was young; but I'm an old married lady now, and there are moments when she looks almost heroic to me. I imagine that when she was twenty, she spent more time hoping and worrying. The passing years have taken that away, but they've replaced it with clarity and resolution. Charlotte knows what her choices are, and she's going to make the best of them.

I've also grown confident that she and Lizzie will get over their slight estrangement. Lizzie has still been living in that state of hope and worry that Charlotte left behind with her girlhood, and from that vantage point she finds it repugnant that Charlotte could marry a man she neither loves nor respects. I trust that over time, though, Lizzie will come to a better understanding of the bargain Charlotte's made. She may even recognize the delicate moral distinction on which it's based: that while it might be wrong of Charlotte to enter into such a marriage with a man who possessed any degree of emotional sensitivity, Mr. Collins is never going to notice it.
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