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Downward Mobility

The Form of Capital and the Sentimental Novel

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, as constant growth became the economic norm throughout Europe, fictional stories involving money were overwhelmingly about loss. Novel after novel tells the tale of bankruptcy and financial failure, of people losing everything and ending up in debtor's prison, of inheritances lost and daughters left orphaned and poor. In Downward Mobility, Katherine Binhammer argues that these stories of ruin are not simple tales about the losers of capitalism but narratives that help manage speculation of capital's inevitable collapse.

Bringing together contemporary critical finance studies with eighteenth-century literary history, Binhammer demonstrates the centrality of the myth of downward mobility to the cultural history of capitalism—and to the emergence of the novel in Britain. Deftly weaving economic history and formal analysis, Binhammer reveals how capitalism requires the novel's complex techniques to render infinite economic growth imaginable. She also explains why the novel's signature formal developments owe their narrative dynamics to the contradictions within capital's form.

Combining new archival research on the history of debt with original readings of sentimental novels, including Frances Burney's Cecilia and Camilla, Sarah Fielding's David Simple, and Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, Downward Mobility registers the value of literary narrative in interpreting the complex sequences behind financial capitalism, especially the belief in infinite growth that has led to current environmental crises. An audacious epilogue arms humanists with the argument that, in order to save the planet from unsustainable growth, we need to read more novels.

About the Author

Katherine Binhammer is a professor of English at the University of Alberta. She is the author of The Seduction Narrative in Britain, 1747–1800.

Endorsementss

"Katherine Binhammer's project—to enrich eighteenth-century studies by attending to post-2008 new critical finance—is timely and interesting. It's sophisticated, interdisciplinary, clearly written, thoroughly researched, and alert to its arguments' contemporary relevance."

- Eleanor Courtemanche, University of Illinois, author of The 'Invisible Hand' and British Fiction, 1818–1860: Adam Smith, Political Economy, and the Genre of Realism

"A well-written and lively contribution to the history of the English novel that offers a clear map for reading the relationship between eighteenth-century sentimental fiction and contemporaneous economic crises. Binhammer's ability to keep narrative fiction's literariness in view as the basis for a deeper understanding of our own intuitions today—about instruments like retirement plans and mortgages—is what makes this book different from many others on similar topics."

- Betty Joseph, Rice University, author of Reading the East India Company, 1720–1840: Colonial Currencies of Gender
Johns Hopkins University Press
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