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The Haberdasher's Plot: The Romance of Small Trade in Frances Burney's Fiction

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Publication details

JournalTulsa Studies in Women's Literature
DateAccepted/In press - 20 Sep 2018
DatePublished (current) - 29 Nov 2018
Issue number2
Number of pages23
Pages (from-to)271-293
Original languageEnglish


This article investigates the modest retail spaces of haberdasheries as places of economic self-sufficiency and emotional support for women shopkeepers in Frances Burney’s Cecilia (1782) and The Wanderer (1814). Eighteenth-century haberdashery was a flexible trade that required less capital and skill than other wearing apparel professions; female haberdashers evaded the sexual stereotypes that plagued milliners and dressmakers. In these novels, haberdasheries constitute feminized spaces that turn attention toward women’s economic production as opposed to the dangers they faced as consumers and in sexualized trades—being conflated with goods for sale, mistaken for sex workers and thieves, stalked, and placed at risk of accruing social and monetary debts. Burney’s “haberdasher’s plot” interrupts the gendered economy of debt made visible across her novels, creating narrative and commercial alternatives to the marriage plot. Together Cecilia and The Wanderer demonstrate the financial and individual rewards of modest retail spaces, even if the romance of small trade provides only temporary shelter from the inescapable risks of the marketplace.

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