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While self-possession has often been linked to the changing nature of masculinity in the eighteenth century, this paper seeks to explore the relevance and implication of such ideas for women. Eighteenth-century British culture placed much emphasis on the importance of self-possession and understood this concept in multiple different ways. In one sense, self-possession marked the ability to have ownership of one’s self and one’s personhood. Inhabiting such forms of self-possession often relied upon owning certain forms of property. What you owned, and more importantly what you were legally allowed to own, marked your legal personality. In another sense, self-possession underlined the need to remain in control of one’s feelings, reactions, and passions even when faced with difficult situations. Such poise was communicated through utterances, gestures, and bodily movements, but it also had material manifestations, particularly with urban spaces. To keep hold of your possessions was an important means of marking your self-possession. 

This paper examines how questions of self-possession were deeply linked to conceptions of property and thus resulted in different configurations for men and women in this period. Utilising novels, newspaper notices and court cases, the paper looks to instances in which women lost their property and explores the unravelling of self-possession such moments often threatened to prompt. By exploring these questions, we begin to see that it was not just property which was important in shaping women’s lives and sense of self in this period, but rather it was also their ability to retain such property over time. 

Kate Smith is an historian of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain and empire. Her research explores how historical actors produced, consumed, and derived meaning from, the material world. Kate is currently working on a monograph provisionally entitled Losing Possession in the Long Eighteenth Century. Her recent books include, Material Goods, Moving Hands: Perceiving Production in England, 1700-1830 (2014), New Pathways to Public Histories (co-edited with Margot Finn, 2015), The East India Company at Home (co-edited with Margot Finn, 2018) and British Women and Cultural Practices of Empire, 1770-1940 (co-edited with Rosie Dias, 2018). 

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