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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.

Endorsements

"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

"Katherine Binhammer invites us to read eighteenth-century novels as a way of returning capital to its fundamental fictionality, expertly guiding us to imagine departures from wealth as something other than loss."

- Eugenia Zuroski, McMaster University, author of A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism

"Katherine Binhammer brings both critical sophistication and extraordinary readerly attention to demonstrate how the form of the eighteenth-century sentimental novel reveals a wholly different side of early modern economic relations than capitalism's default narrative of progress. We are all in her debt."

- John O'Brien, University of Virginia, author of Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650–1850

"Katherine Binhammer's Downward Mobility offers an impressive revisionist reading of the sentimental novel's fictions of financial distress. Binhammer's exciting and bitingly critical view of the history of capitalism provides a powerful context for her examination of narratives of feeling, obligation, and trust, addressed through a wide range of sentimental novels."

- Markman Ellis, Queen Mary University of London, author of The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender, and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel

"Pivoting gracefully between eighteenth-century ideas and those of our present, Downward Mobility richly revises sundry intertwinings of the history of the novel and the history of financial capitalism toward far more precise formal and conceptual links. Binhammer's readings reveal how the constant threat of loss and debt become surprisingly generative for fictional forms, and underscore in turn how fiction contributes directly to the critical study of finance and the judgement of social values; literary critics and cultural historians from many fields will find strong connective tissue this engagingly written and impressively researched book."

- Anna Kornblurh, University of Illinois at Chicago, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space
Johns Hopkins University Press
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Not Drowning But Waving

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