“ ‘Perish the Baubles’: the Conspicuous Unimportance of Wealth in Sentimental Comedy”
Implicit in eighteenth-century comedy’s valorization of benevolence is the notion that money itself is unimportant to a morally upright life or, more specifically, that a desire for an increase in one’s own wealth is decidedly immoral. The tension here should be obvious: the very identity of the middle class is dependent on an accumulation of wealth which differentiates it from the laboring classes. This emergent middle class could now afford to purchase a majority of the rights and privileges of the noble classes, though they were not themselves titled. Wealth, then, was definitional for middle class identity, yet bourgeois ideology mandated a disavowal of the desire for the accumulation of wealth. Indeed, wealth became associated, in bourgeois ideology, with pretension and the aristocracy. Money, then, is simultaneously what the middle class desired, as it climbed the social ladder, and what the middle class needed to renounce if it wished to retain a moral ground higher than the aristocracy’s.
In the comedies of the late eighteenth century, this curious tension surrounding money is dealt with brilliantly. The playwrights of the period manage both to affirm the unimportance of wealth to happiness, while making sure none of their characters wants for anything at all at play’s end. Love is always more important than money for the characters in these plays, but because each couple ends the play in possession of a fortune, they can easily afford to stress the unimportance of wealth to their happiness.