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Exploring the marriage plot: professor examines the greater subtexts in works of literature by women

Staff September 24, 2012 Entertainment No Comments

By Ellin Youse
Transcript Reporter

Professor Sally Livingston’s new book, Marriage, Property, and Women’s Narratives, intersects history, economics and medieval literature to investigate the psychology behind women and their finances.

Livingston began to write the book while writing her dissertation as a graduate student at Harvard. After a year of revisions, she finished the book upon her arrival at Ohio Wesleyan last fall.

“When I saw the finished product, I couldn’t believe how small it was,” Livingston said. “When I sent it off to the publishers, it was so thick! Now it’s just this tiny little thing.”

Livingston owned a consulting firm for most of her adult life and said much of the inspiration for her book comes from working with her female consultants. She said the women “had an ‘I can’t deal with it, someone else handle it’ attitude with their finances.”

“I was thinking about this book even before I went back to school at Harvard because a lot of these women consultants I had were really afraid of money,” Livingston said. “They were usually in their thirties or forties, and they were brought up with old fashioned ideas of money; they were used to being dependent on others, and they were scared. I figured it just had something to do with math, but in reality they just felt utterly incapable of understanding money and investments.”

Livingston left consulting to work towards her Ph.D at Harvard where she continued to think about women and money.

As she studied medieval literature from the 11th century, Livingston said she began to compare and contrast the women in her readings to her former clients.
She realized the attitudes of women before they lost the right to own property were immensely different from the attitudes modern women typically have towards money.

“The idea just randomly clicked with me while I was reading a book for my fairy tale class,” Livingston said. “I was just reading and then I realized, like, this is all about economics.”

Livingston said she took a literary and historical approach on how women began to think about money.

“Before the 11th century in many places in western Europe, women could own and pass property down in their own name, and literature written by women during this time was very autonomous,” Livingston said. “Women lost their right to property as economic circumstance changed, and everything that was theirs now became ‘his.’ These women had no autonomy, even mentally. To have money is to have freedom, and when you have that taken, you become dependent on a man.”

Livingston said she traced her ideas of women and their loss of property throughout the middle ages and into the era of Jane Austen.

She studied how female writers of this time talked about themselves, marriage and property.

“In any Jane Austen novel, ‘the marriage plot’ is always the central theme,” Livingston said.

“So much of the literature women write, even today, is about romance. And I think a lot of that comes from the fact that women really did have to find husbands.”

To achieve an expansive view of women writers throughout history, Livingston said she examined what would have happened if they’d never lost property. To do this, she looked at works by Russian women, since Russian women never lost their rights to own property. Livingston found that in these works, marriage and romance were scarcely mentioned if mentioned at all.

“If women had the right to own property throughout the last 800 years, literature would have been vastly different,” Livingston said. “I always asked myself the question: why in heaven’s name do we have such trouble with money? And I now realize it’s because we lost ownership of ourselves. We began to see ourselves as property.”

Livingston is working on another book focusing on medieval fairy tales and their underlying economic themes. In her new book, Livingston said she examines how medieval fairy tales reflect social anxiety over the era’s change from an equalitarian, bartering economy to a commercial, speculation economy. Livingston is currently teaches a freshman honors tutorial about the fairy tales, which she said directly benefits her writing.

“This time around I’m teaching the subject as I’m working on the book, and the input I receive from my students is just amazing,” Livingston said. “Their perceptions are just incredible and give me so much insight. I’m absolutely going to have to give them credit in the book.”

Senior Madeline Lank is a humanities major currently working with Livingston on her independent study. Lank’s independent study focuses on medieval fairy tales, and she said she benefits from her influence.

“She’s very passionate about what she does, and a terrific resource,” Lank said. “Working with her is the highlight of my week. She takes my ideas seriously and brings out her own info to guide my thoughts. I have the utmost respect for her and I love working with her.”

Students can order Livingston’s book Marriage, Property, and Women’s Narratives on Amazon, or pick up the copy on reserve at Beeghly Library.

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