Tag Archives: 18th century

Phillip English & the Identity Politics of Material Culture

The home of Phillip and Mary English was built in 1685 on Essex Street in Salem, Massachusetts.
(Image from University of Missouri)

Material culture is fascinating. It can be as simple as a flint arrowpoint or as elaborate as hand gilded furniture, as beautifully functional as a Wedgwood teacup or as ridiculously simple as a copper kettle — the pieces available for interpretation are varied and many. Understanding how it shapes identity, how it alters and creates cultural identity, is more challenging.

The story of Phillip English (or Philippe L’Anglois), a Jersey merchant who immigrated to Salem in the seventeenth century, is an excellent example. A merchant who brought foreign goods to New England, he also forced the insular Puritan community to cope with those unlike themselves — and in the process created a new cultural identity. He prospered in his given profession as an Anglicized Frenchman in a British colony, forcing his contemporaries to acknowledge not only the necessity of his presence, but his intrinsic worth as well. In the interim, however, by creating and maintaining an identity separate from the other Salem merchants, he occupied a psychological and cultural borderland. This created tensions with his Puritan neighbors, true, but the psychological space in which they met and conducted their business gave rise of the “polite consumer culture” of the eighteenth century.

That Phillip English was partially responsible for the rise of a polite consumer culture that eventually modeled itself on Georgian gentility is not surprising. Much of what he imported were goods popular among the gentility. His actions, coupled his very existence in that time and place, contributed to the transition away from Puritan homogeneity to commercial homogeneity. The interplay between commerce and culture transformed the social universe, because “polite culture” was concerned more with outward symbols of success than it was eternal salvation. Once gentility became a sign of economic and social prosperity, your appearance became everything. To be part of this imagined community required purchasing its trappings.

This meant people were not only purchasing an identity, they were altering culture through the acquisition and display of new and exotic goods. A New England origin for the idea of “keeping up with the Jones,'” perhaps?

Of course, the meaning given to material goods can change and, subsequently, change culture. Those who believed that the luxurious possessions they owned reflected their worth identified as Georgian gentility. At the same time, others who were resistant to capitalism and the new culture unfolding, and those of the lower classes, saw those objects quite differently. This difference of interpretation became more evident as the eighteenth century wore on. The culmination of this reinterpretation was the result of the Patriots, who created new meanings for material goods and the connection between them and a person’s character.

By altering those meanings, the Patriots (and earlier, those opposed to the polite consumer culture) distinguished themselves and their politics from everyone else. This began to alter culture. With their emphasis on purchasing domestic goods as opposed to foreign imports, the Patriots created an “American” identity that endures to this day.

Isn’t it interesting how what we choose to buy, or not buy, reflects our culture and cultural perceptions? Material goods can alter or even create culture and culture alters and creates material goods.

For more on this topic, and to learn about Phillip English’s brush with the Salem Witchcraft Trials, read Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World by Phyllis Hunter.

Money, Culture and Burney’s ‘Evelina’

Frances Burney d’Arblay
(Portrait by Edward Francis Burney)

Prompted in large part by @GeorgiannaGossip‘s fabulous group read of Frances Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina, the Bookish Miss is revisiting one of her favorite novels and looking at it in a new way.

Evelina is an often overlooked landmark work. It was one of the first recognizably modern novels, written by a woman, immensely popular in its own time and precedes Jane Austen’s novels by decades.

It’s also a very good read. Even the eighteenth century grammar and rhetoric are easy to adjust to, and its epistolary format makes it good for reading in small bites.

One thing I find fascinating is that, throughout the story, money and culture are constantly in conflict. History reminds us that for a member of the upper class (often called the “ton”) to concern her or himself with money was a serious social faux pas; so was the allocation of a “use value” to any object or idea considered cultured. Burney knew this, she understood this. However, a great deal of her novel deals with incidents where her characters, willingly or not, have to deal with money or the idea that something can have a quantifiable value. This violation of unspoken rules and etiquette, the “social determinants of taste,” often contributes to social confusion for Evelina.

What’s most fascinating is that while Burney exposes the utter hypocrisy of the ton, they gobbled up her book. Of course, there are just as many characters for the ton to ridicule as there are upper class fools for the middling classes to revile. Taken in its entirety, Evelina demonstrates the ambiguous and ambivalent relationship that eighteenth century Britons had with actual money.

One of the interesting things I noticed in my umpteeth reread of Evelina is that there seems to be a “buffer zone” between the ton and the rest of society. It appears to be an unspoken idea that there are areas money should not intrude on. This zone keeps people safe; no one but you and your accountant knows how much money you actually have. Anyone could spend lavishly during a season in London, but as to how they lived afterwards … well, that’s their business. Accordingly, when money matters do intrude it causes great embarrassment amongst the characters.

Take the opera scene. Branghton Sr. pays for the opera passes, but complains of the price and even goes as far as to haggle with the doorkeeper. When his daughters remark on his ignorance in the matter, the prices having been listed in the newspaper, he responds by telling them “the price of stocks is enough for me to see after; and I took it for granted it was the same thing here as at the playhouse.” As a businessman, he automatically looks for the usefulness of whatever he pays for. Indeed, he compares the opera to the plays he and his family regularly attend at Drury Lane and comes away from the experience upset, believing he has been “tricked out of his money with so little trouble.”

The reader comes away from this scene feeling sympathy for the embarrassed heroine, who has to put up with someone so “uncultured” he cannot grasp the concept of art for art’s sake. However, the scene not only shows how a member of the elite is mortified at the lack of appreciation for the opera, but how a middling class merchant is upset that the culture he helps finance does not give him his money’s worth.

The “buffer zone” is also crossed when the issue of debts and IOUs are broached. Because finances are not mentioned by polite society the very idea of commenting on one’s “arrangements” is considered vulgar and uncouth. Thus when Evelina first encounters Mr. Macartney she is somewhat shocked to hear her cousins, the Branghtons, openly discussing him and his finances. He is referred to by Miss Branghton as a “poor Scotch poet … [who will] never pay for his lodging.” Her comments are much less nationalistic prejudice as they are economic. A poet can be considered a writer and, as a writer, a producer. For the Branghtons, Mr. Macartney being a poet is not the problem, nor is it his nationality (although that surely plays into their stereotypes). The problem with Mr. Macartney, from the point of view of the Branghtons, is that he does not make money as a poet. Evelina and the ton see poetry for its aesthetic qualities and recognize that it as a product of social consciousness, but members of the middling classes realize that art, especially literature, is an industry. This is epitomized by Branghton Sr., who sees poetry and literature as something produced by writers and publishers and sold for profit.

Unfortunately for Macartney, he has no publisher and so makes no profit. Evelina, who pities his plight and is charmed by the aesthetics of his work, lends him money. Later, when he repays his debt (after using her as the subject of a poem without her prior knowledge), he causes something of a stir. That he chooses to conduct the transaction at an unsuitable time, in a public and inconvenient place, leaves Evelina open to public scrutiny.

However, even the unwritten rules of social expectation and conduct have exceptions. Bad news about monetary situations often got around, legitimately or not, but eighteenth century Britain’s greatest exception to their unwritten rules of monetary conduct was the marriage market. Commenting on the size (or lack thereof) of a young woman’s dowry was considered perfectly acceptable. What would appear to be an instance where the buffer zone is crossed turns out to be normal and a topic for conversation, even in polite circles. Indeed, when all of Evelina’s troubles are resolved and her marriage to Lord Orville is arranged, Mrs. Selwyn quite easily and unapologetically tells her that her father has given her a dowry in the amount of L30,000. This news is not so much shocking to the heroine as it perplexing; the causal mention of finances in everyday, if occasional, conversation goes unnoticed.

This double standard is very confusing and somewhat hypocritical, but can be understood. Evelina inhabits a world almost completely ruled by the elite of society — they create the rules and boundaries, including buffer zone between themselves and the middling and working classes whose work supports them. Burney’s genius is in satirizing her society by subtly (and not-so-subtly) pointing out its faults, vices and hypocrisies. The buffer zone, while a source of constant attack and embarrassment for the characters, allows the reader to see the fascinating dichotomies of eighteenth-century Britain.

All quotes taken from the 1992 Penguin Books edition of Evelina.