Archive for the ‘Honors Papers’ Category

The Business of Crime and The Conspiracy of Paper

February 21, 2010

William Belt
English – Grove to Grubstreet – Honors Project
(emailed Friday, Feb. 19, 2010)

To make a living through crime requires planning and organization. Whether a prostitute and a thief conspire to rob a man, or a large corporation fights to protect the value of its company stock, the enterprises need the support of organization and planning, and a network of criminals. In The Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss, the author describes several criminal enterprises that share one thing in common. To be successful, they are all highly organized and well connected.

At the start of the story, Liss describes two criminals who are unsuccessful, a prostitute named Kate Cole who earns additional money stealing from her customers and her partner Jemmy. Kate and Jemmy are low level criminals who earn a living by running a scam. Kate gets her customers drunk and take them to a hidden alley where she robs them as they sleep, or after her partner Jemmy beats them up. Kate and Jemmy show that even at its most basic level, crime involves conspiracy and cooperation.

Kate and Jemmy also rely on a more complicated network. Kate and Jemmy worked for Jonathan Wild. They were forced to work for Wild because the simple act of robbery requires support. Stolen property has no value if it cannot be sold. Kate’s apartment full of stolen property shows the helplessness of a thief with no backer. “She had enough here that could she but sell it, she might acquire a neat little fortune” (33). When the enterprise is working, Wild purchases and sells stolen property. He also acts as an unreliable protector, turning his thieves in for reward money when they stopped earning money for him. Despite the danger of being “double crossed”, Wild provides Kate and Jemmy the organization needed to turn stolen property into cash.

As the story unfolds, we learn of even more powerful criminal elements. The Judicial system is for sale to the highest bidder. When Weaver is arrested and faces charges of manslaughter for the death of an innocent bystander, the decision whether to hang him or set him free is determined by whoever bribes the magistrate first. Jonathon Wild’s criminal enterprise remains successful because he paid off court officials. Liss echoes Daniel Defoe’s description of how things worked at Newgate Prison, the infamous London jail. According to both authors, condemned criminals were shown leniency if the officials were bribed. Wild’s infiltration of the judicial system allows him to control whether criminals are hanged after he marks them with “double crosses.”
Jonathon Wild’s operation was as organized as a large business. Liss describes the South Sea Company as being run by the most powerful and best organized criminal forces in the story. South Sea Company and the Bank of England engage in criminal actions to compete with each other and to become rich. At the heart of the story is criminal activity designed to enhance or destroy the value of South Sea Company stock. While Jonathon Wild relies on thieves and prostitutes to make him money, South Sea Company and the Bank of England contend with dishonest “stock jobbers” who try to raise and lower the company stock prices. The officers also hire thugs and murderers to defend their wealth and to kill people who threaten their business.

By the end of the story Liss has turned London society upside down and revealed criminal elements at every level of society. Kate and Jemmy are no better than Sir Owen, who is actually Martin Rochester. Sir Owen is a criminal stock jobber who has forged South Sea stock. He has even asked Jonathan Wild for his help selling the forged stock. When Weaver’s father threatened to uncover the plot, Sir Owen had them killed. Yet Sir Owen claims to be a gentleman. Weaver’s unmasking of Sir Owen as Martin Rochester occurs as Sir Owen attends the theatre with his fiancé and other wealthy Londoners. Even as Weaver is hauled away for manslaughter, Sir Owen walks free after recovering from his injuries, but is then killed by unidentified thugs.

The officers of South Sea Company are also criminals. Nathan Adelman does not convincingly deny South Sea’s responsibility for Sir Owen’s death. His sole interest is protecting the value of South Sea stock. He pays Miriam five thousand pounds for her agreement not to divulge the existence of forged stock. Sir Owen’s death helps the company because he cannot tell the world that some South Sea stock certificates are fake. Nathan Adelman also admits to Weaver that he has made himself rich while working to increase the value of South Sea stock. Nathan Adelman is similar to Jonathon Wild. Both rely on low level criminals to carry out their wishes, and both benefit from the criminal actions of others. Adelman even admitted that he made money when stock jobbers spread rumors that the “pretender” to the throne was riding into London to assume power. While Adelman’s methods of getting rich are more sophisticated, he is no more honest than Jonathon Wild.

In A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss describes criminal behavior by characters from every level of London society. Kate and Jemmy are common thieves, but they turn out to have much in common with Sir Owen who plots to forge South Sea stock certificates. Jonathon Wild is an infamous crime boss, but he has much in common with Nathan Adelman, a respected leader at the South Sea Company. For David Liss, criminal behavior exists at every social class. The link between these criminals from different social classes underscores the level of organization necessary for a criminal enterprise to succeed. Just as Jonathon Wild runs a business with low level thieves working for and sometimes against him, the South Sea Company runs a business that depends at times on criminal activities to protect its stock value and to eradicate its enemies. For David Liss, successful criminal endeavors require organization and planning just like running a business.

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Being Single: A Precarious Position

February 18, 2010

            Eighteenth century London housed much political and religious tension.  On the surface, the first decade of the century, the setting for Sophie Gee’s Scandal of the Season, witnessed rising uneasiness between the Whigs and Tories, and perhaps more notably, between the Catholics and Protestants.  Underlying these apparent conflicts, a far more radical change was occurring; the landed aristocracy of the previous centuries was slowly fusing with the moneyed-interest merchant class.  Marriage provided the medium for the dissolution of established class barriers.  In a way, interclass marriages fulfilled multiple classes’ desires as the aristocracy could replenish, and in some cases, increase their estates, while the merchant class could marry into aristocratic titles.  Also, marriages between Catholics and Protestants, usually among aristocrats, allowed Catholic families to regain their reputations lost from Jacobite persecution.  With such an increasing value being placed on well-wrought marriages, it is not surprising that, in essence, a marketplace for unmarried women developed.  Women began to be “cultivated [for] the acquisition of a rich husband” (40).  What is often overlooked, however, is the unique status of single women, for sale, on the marriage marketplace.  With a chaste reputation greatly contributing to a woman’s pre-marital worth, a promiscuous single woman had much to fear.  Marriage, therefore, provided single women the security to be acceptably licentious.

            In eighteenth century London’s marriage marketplace, “reputation [was] the most volatile of stocks; incalculably high at one moment, worth nothing at all at the next” (57).  In “so tempestuous a market,” one unchaste action, before marriage, could destroy a woman’s marketplace prospects (57).  Especially without the security of great fortune or noble birth, as in Arabella Fermor’s case, a clean reputation was essential. In The Scandal of the Season, The Lady Castlecomber’s position in society starkly apposes Arabella’s societal position.  Charlotte Castlecomber, a well married noble, has the security to engage in her late night escapes.  Arabella’s reputation, on the other hand, is under no such security, for she lacks a husband. The Lady Castlecomber’s marital status allows her to follow her own advice given to Lord Petre: “Marry the person [your family wants] you to, and seek your pleasures elsewhere” (104).  Aware that her scandalous actions with Lord Petre could result in ignominy, Arabella begins to desire the lifestyle expressed in Charlotte Castlecomber’s advice, a lifestyle that must first begin with marriage.

            Sexually pure before her encounters with Lord Petre, Arabella had never felt the desire to expedite her marriage. It was not until realizing the precariousness of her situation as a loose, single woman that Arabella begins to crave the security offered by marriage. Roughly halfway through novel, after just losing a “good-natured” suitor to another woman, Arabella is reminded that “her position was precarious” (117).  Arabella continues her thought in wondering what a kind husband, such as her foregone suitor, “might have done for herself” (117). The notion of “[being] settled; [of being] secure” begins to entice Arabella to marry.

            Contrasting Arabella’s expression of the precariousness of her situation as a single woman is Lady Castlecomber’s comment regarding her own position as a married woman.  After a highly detailed rendezvous with Lord Petre, Charlotte says “Do not forget that I am lucky to have [Lord Castlecomber] as my husband … [for] I could not have you in my bed if I were unmarried” (105). Castlecomber then extends her thought in a comment very applicable to Arabella’s situation by stating that if she were unmarried, “[she] should be bent entirely upon safeguarding [her] reputation from attack” (105).  In hindsight, the scene is quite ironic given that Lord Petre becomes the attacker that besieges Arabella.

            It is clear, at least in Sophie Gee’s interpretation, that marriage in Alexander Pope’s time provided women the protection to be safely involved with multiple men.  Somewhere among the three hundred years between the early eighteenth century and today, something changed.  In a way, marriage in today’s society has come to play the opposite role of its eighteenth century counterpart.  A general stereotype of marriage in today’s society would point to a process that attempts to inhibit promiscuity, not to endorse it.  The popular practices of throwing bachelor and bachelorette parties provide evidence for marriage’s shifting purposes as some couples attempt to purge themselves of all promiscuity before matrimonial monogamy.  Some modern women, perhaps women that were not ready to marry in the first place, claim that marriage chained them down with its monogamous expectations.  Such statements are largely antithetical to the Lady Castlecomber’s assertion that marriage grants sexual freedom.

            What explains the dramatic shift in marriage’s effects on women in the last three centuries?  The answer lies in the changing reasons for why people marry.  Before and during the eighteenth century, marriages were arranged for the maximum obtainment of wealth and status.  As wealth began to accumulate in the hands of merchants and other non-aristocratic citizens, class lines were crossed in an attempt to keep wealth and status confined to a new aristocracy.  With the rise of new forms of wealth, the defined aristocratic boundary crumbled as classes mixed.  Now, although some would argue that aristocratic boundaries still exist in the western world, people tend to marry for love rather than societal advancement.  When people began considering marriage as an emotional arrangement, not a business arrangement, monogamy became an expectation while protected promiscuity through marriage became a benefit of the past.

                                             Works Cited:

Gee, Sophie. The Scandal of the Season. New York City, NY: Scribner, 2007.

Eighteenth Century Wealth and Corruption

February 17, 2010

In his novel A conspiracy of Paper, David Liss weaves together a believable tale of intrigue and murder using conventions and styles that emulate those of notable eighteenth century novelists such as Daniel Defoe. Situated in 1719, the novel details Benjamin Weaver’s mysterious quest for justice and acceptance in a London that is becoming more and more involved with exchange alley and the replacement of coins by paper currency and investment bonds. Also, Benjamin Weaver’s journey provides a realistic and historically accurate description of a London underground that was uncommonly large and yet consolidated in the hands of only a few. Perhaps most importantly, Weaver’s journey, and indeed his profession as well, provide an in-depth look into the corruption of eighteenth century London’s justice system, a corruption centered on money and advanced by the influential crime syndicates and the newly emergent, powerful businesses.

In a time when social mobility increased dramatically as wealth began to include more than just land, many turned to crime as the quickest and easiest way to acquire money. With an increase in crime rate, a system of justice was loosely established to protect the honest citizens; however, unfortunately, the constables, prison-keepers, court judges, and magistrates found themselves corrupting the system as they, too, attempted to profit at every turn in hopes of finding wealth. As Weaver describes a group of constables “they were as much a pair of blackguards as ever performed the task of justice in this town…for they were known villains who delighted only in random violence” (324). This system, or should I say, lack of system, provided the foundation for powerful thief-takers, such as the notorious Jonathan Wild, to emerge and prosper. Weaver’s uncle illustrates the influence of Wild in saying that “in certain kinds of trade, one cannot but deal with Wild” (112). Elias, Weaver’s surprisingly sage Scottish friend, choices the adjective “uncertain” as most appropriate for the age, and it is precisely this uncertainty that allows for the prototype crime lords to thrive as they provide strength and stability, albeit unjust (427).

The thief-takers, however, were also aided by the punitive system. Weaver best illustrates the corruption with his concerns, “our legal system…is a terrible and fearful thing, and no man, guilty or innocent, wishes to stand before it” (294). On another occasion he says, “Faced with the arbitrary nature of our legal system, I had cause to worry, for if someone in power wished me bound over for trial, then I could see no way to avoid that fate” (419-20). Essentially, people and organizations of power could readily manipulate the law to protect themselves and hinder those who could do them harm—a lesson which Weaver learns firsthand.

What is most intriguing, and certainly most relevant to this novel, is the way in which power is obtained in eighteenth century London. Unlike in the days of the landed gentry, power was beginning to fade away from those who claimed their influence only from aristocratic lineages. Wealth became the prerequisite of power and, as people began to feel the accessibility of money, bribery and other such mechanisms only increased the power of wealth. Thus, with the combination of increasing wealth, and consequently power, and a fledgling legal system, the corruption of the period is better understood, if not justified.

This relatively newfound power from wealth provides the reason, at least indirectly, for Samuel Lienzo’s murder and Weaver’s consequent quest for justice. Today, in a country whose currency is valued only on expectations and promises, it is hard to imagine the transformation that eighteenth century London was experiencing as solid money began to find replacements in bonds and investment notes. Continuing on the theme of uncertainty, people worried what would happen to their money, no longer able to store their coins and have the satisfaction of empirical ownership. Essentially, a financial stability would be necessary to convince people to buy into the system of paper that was so championed by the South Sea Company. In proposing the notion, albeit truthfully, that false stock is in circulation, Lienzo, and later Weaver and Miriam, threaten to scare the timid buyers into thinking that their paper wealth is in jeopardy. In a time when wealth equals power and the ability to manipulate the law, such a scare would be disastrous and would certaintly be reason enough to cause Weaver so much trouble.

Overall, Liss’s novel shows us the power and influence of wealth in eighteenth century London and its ability to cause corruption strong enough to pervade every level of justice as crime becomes a new business, much like those new businesses on exchange alley, capable of creating and destroying men.