Gender Polarity and the “Invisible Hand” in G. W. M. Reynolds’s “Mary Price” (1851–1852) and “Joseph Wilmot” (1853–1855)

Lourdes E. Salgado completed her PhD at the University of Salamanca, Spain. Her thesis, ‘We forge the chains we wear in life’: The Intellection of Servitude in Mary Price (1851–1852) and Joseph Wilmot (1853–1855) by G. W. M. Reynolds”, which received a Cum Laude, centred on power dynamics between servants and masters in Victorian sensationalist fiction with particular reference to the novels of Dickens’s nemesis, G. W. M. Reynolds, from a Foucauldian and Chartist viewpoint. At present, she works at the University of Liverpool as Spanish Tutor and Language Advisor for Spanish and Portuguese. Lourdes is a member of the G. W. M. Reynolds Society and the LIMEN Research Group on liminality studies and can be found on LinkedIn @ This blog post has been adapted from a chapter in Lourdes’s thesis. 

Parallel to the concept of heroine, that of the “invisible hand” put forward by Adam Smith in 1776 can be observed in Reynolds’s fiction so as to suggest, as Courtemanche stated, “an ironic mode of social action in which the results of individual actions are displaced to some indefinite spatial and temporal distance, creating by implication an unimaginably complex and detailed web of moral causality” (2011). This translates as a narrative being capable of modelling emergent behaviour by means of its narrator’s creation of individual perspectives combined with an overarching viewpoint, which result in a series of shifts that compels readers to examine their own distance from the text in spatial terms. Thus, certain social complexities evoked by the text are indeed glimpsed by the reader within the context of gendered spaces. Courtemanche adapted Smith’s economic concept to the literary field by renaming it as the “invisible hand social theory”, which intertwined virtue and vice in hybrid plots. This model of causality, however, differed from non-Reynoldian novels in that the moral consequences of such virtue/vice duality could not result in anything other than salvation or damnation.

The category of gender, therefore, plays an important role as regards the “invisible hand” by elucidating the interstice created between the action at a distance and personal behaviour. The social complexity and multiplicity of social perspectives in real life appears to be incompatible with the story of the characters in Mary Price (1851-1852) and Joseph Wilmot (1853-1855) because of the “worm’s-eye view” of the characters and the “bird’s-eye view” of the narrator. Both terms are widely used in the field of aerial photography, drawing and graphical projection and can be similarly adapted to Reynoldian narratology. Whereas the former entails a three-point perspective, with two vanishing points on top, left and right, the latter represents the opposite, with a top-down perspective or overhead view. Thus, when these two views are extrapolated to Mary Price and Joseph Wilmot, both characters and narrator seem to be mirrored within the narrative so as to present the reader an implicit, binary context wherein such unseen interconnections between both are reflected in the descriptions of servants frequently in the first person as well as in concluded actions in gendered spaces. 

First page of the edition in book format of Joseph Wilmot; or, The Memoirs of a Man-Servant (London: John Dicks, 1854). Illustrated by Edward Corbould.

First page of Mary Price; or, The Memoirs of a Servant-Maid (London: John Dicks, 1853). Illustrated with engravings by Frederick Gilbert.

Such beneficial result or the belief in harmony encompassing every human being is stated in the law of the heterogeneity of purposes, also known as “the doctrine of the invisible hand”, within the field of Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Greatly influenced by Christian thought, the doctrines of Natural Theology contained in this field revolved around the conception of divine goodness, which can be regarded as the engine behind any given society, which would then be acting as a machine that would produce harmonious effects or motions for its members. Under this view, this doctrine is in direct relation to Smith’s notion of the invisible hand, which can be interpreted as the theoretical possibility for progress and harmony within society; hence, it seems plausible in Reynoldian fiction that divine goodness could be the ultimate goal that Reynolds wanted to instil in his readers by means of the virtuous servants, Mary and Joseph. With their moral choices functioning as harmonious motions or ripples, society could indeed be transformed.

This Smithsonian invisible hand, therefore, could well be paraphrasing the first fundamental welfare theorem according to Arrow and Hahn (1971), which is based on a social choice theory by which the combination of individuals’ preferences or welfares gives rise to a social welfare centred on a Pareto-optimal efficiency or “the principle by which a beneficent social order emerged as the unintended consequence of individual human action” (Kim et al, n. d.). Such social welfare would imply the coexistence of good, God and worldly evil as its antithesis or, in short, the question of theodicy. Indeed, a link can be established between theodicy or the vindication of God in the face of suffering and political economy if the emphasis is placed upon the consequences of human impulses and the use of free will in the social sphere. Evensky (1993) explained this connection by the metaphor of the invisible hand put forward by Smith, wherein a benevolent Deity or God sets in motion the machine of the universe with invisible, interlacing principles that affect human beings and their roles in society. This leads to the question of the way in which this is depicted in Mary Price and Joseph Wilmot. Through the Foucauldian, New Historicist lens, for instance, the mechanism of markets and economic individuality in Victorian England created a system of truth that originated a biopolitical conduct as well as economic practices that resulted in new forms of control and power relations. Thus, any given individual choice would be swayed by the network of economic and socio-political rules in place at the time, which seemed to leave God outside as a mere observer.

This new system of biopolitics, according to Foucault and Hume (1739), implied that the interests of an individual were subjected to a change towards the interests of the collective as imposed by the State or government, which once again leads to the invisible hand in the Smithsonian sense. His metaphor, however, did not imply the rejection of the State but its responsibility in providing goodness for the citizens through social measures and institutions. Reynolds, on the other hand, fought against its authoritarianism by praising the good actions and moral choices of the characters in his novels so as to confer on each individual the uniqueness of their being; hence, the individual sphere was more important than the collective one inasmuch as each person contributed towards the collective good.

An economic historian, Cipolla (1976), studied human behaviour as a group in a controversial essay wherein he distinguished between four groups of people—helpless, intelligent, stupid and bandits—and their contributions to society. He investigated the benefits and losses that each group caused to themselves and to society and observed that intelligent people were the group which contributed the most, helpless people contributed less and were usually taken advantage of, especially by bandits, who did not contribute at all as they were only interested in their own gain. The final group, that of stupid people, was regarded as a group which did not contribute at all due to their efforts being counterproductive to themselves and to society and were classified as the most dangerous group of all. These groups can be clearly observed in Mary Price and Joseph Wilmot, with characters appertaining to each one of those as if to exemplify stereotypes within society or to prove that such stereotypes were not so at times.

The combination of these groups in these two novels help ascertain the invisible hand acting on the background; however, parallel to this is the concept of the “hidden hand,” which refers to the working-class women whose hands earning the wages remained invisible behind those of the working-class men in the 1850s. Indeed, the dominance of men in the working-force during the first part of the 19th century facilitated the construction of the ideal of the “male bread-winner”, relegating female workers back to the domestic sphere, wherein they would work as servants for a very low pay.

Precisely, narrating this constituted a challenge for a novelist at the time as it would entail confronting the cost of enforced domesticity and exposing exceptions to the ideal of the “male bread-winner”, such as sick or alcoholic men, men who neglected their families, men who were unable to make enough money, unmarried women or widows. The manner in which Reynolds accomplished this was to make use of multiple perspectives whilst dramatising to the extreme the unforeseeable fates of moral actions in heterogeneous societies. Thus, whilst adopting the Smithsonian metaphor of the invisible hand to show the benefits of a collective effort made by the servants to please their masters, he highlighted individuality through the effort made by the hidden hands of both female and male servants to achieve the same goal. In this sense, the epistemological distance he created between himself and his characters is viewed through a double lens of tragedy and comedy but always under the umbrella of optimism and belief in divine goodness.


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