112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Just Who Is Moving that Invisible Hand? Virtue Production and Commodification in Transatlantic Nineteenth-Century Mysteries

Bethany Qualls, "University of California, Davis"

Abstract: In nineteenth-century England and America women are not the authors of virtue, but rather its duplicators and reproducers for the middle class. Looking at nineteenth-century mysteries such as E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand (1859), I show how women who turn production of virtue into a process of agency undercut its fetishization.


A woman's virtue was perhaps the most telling marker of her worth in nineteenth-century England and America. Although a construct grounded in patriarchal norms, virtue as a social sign also becomes the site of a woman’s individual agency and change. Drawing on Karl Marx's notion of commodification, it becomes clear that just like commodities, virtue was another key site for fetishization in Victorian society. Mystery fiction of the period provides many examples of this process at work, as well as exposing the inherent flaws that such unrealistic expectations produced in society at large. I posit that virtue is fabricated by women in the domestic space; the end result is fetishized while its creator is ignored. Because virtue is a product, its value becomes fixed in a system of exchange. Like jewels, virtue is valued highly yet has no inherent value upon close examination. In the same way that value and price become falsely conflated for a commodity, so does a woman’s worth becomes situated in her apparent virtuousness.

In this context, virtue is more than a middle-class woman's chastity. It includes other traits such as the inability to dissemble, passivity, the notion of the "angel wife," and beauty. Childlike behavior and innocence are also invoked as clear signs of virtue—yet all too often they mask dangerous and malicious intentions. Drawing on scientific investigation and methodology of the period, virtue became another attempt to classify transatlantic middle-class women as good or bad. However, mystery novels such as E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand (1859), Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1860), Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862), and Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask (1866) all trouble notions of what makes a woman virtuous or valuable while exploring the effects of idealized purity, virtue, and chastity.

Women are not the authors of virtue, but rather the duplicators and reproducers of this concept. However, the aptly named Capitola in The Hidden Hand moves from reproducer to designer and then on to agent of virtue. Her ability to assess worth and see through the mystery of how commodities are assigned value allows her to do the same with virtue, turning it into a process where she has agency and authorship. Other women mirror this deliberate use of virtue in the text, including Clara, Marah, and Madame Le Noir, quickly obscuring the once clear lines and definition of the many facets of the fetishized notion of virtue. By exploring other contemporary mystery texts, I find that women are placed forcefully into the system of virtue, made responsible for maintaining the system, and explode the system simultaneously, upsetting the moral underpinnings of Victorian-era society.

It is the women who turn their virtue into a process of agency that fare the best in all of these novels, though this process often creates ambiguity about how reliable a social sign virtue remains. This pinpoints an inherent problem with the moral center of nineteenth-century life, demonstrating that using virtue as a classification system is deeply flawed, particularly in terms of its visual markings. The concept rarely matches the discourse and textual representations, further destabilizing virtue as a reliable category of social definition and opening up other ways of gaining and controlling value and self-worth through women’s own efforts.

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