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

Chloe Wigston Smith, University of York
Vol. 37, No. 2 (Fall 2018), 271-293

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 rather than the dangers they faced in sexualized trades and as consumers, such as 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.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]