In The Economy of Character Deidre Lynch does for the evolution of the novel what Michael Denning did more than a decade ago for nineteenth-century 'cheap fiction': she shows how the interpretive grids readers constructed around fictional characters helped them negotiate the subtleties of a shifting economy and the changing expectations and demographics of readership. The Economy of Character considers the literary character, reading practices, and book-marketing strategies as barometers of the 'changing ways in which British men and women in the long eighteenth century accommodated themselves to their increasingly commercial society' and the rise of the middle class (1). Lynch begins by calling into question the usual taxonomies of character found in conventional literary praxis which validate and naturalize a concept of character as representational. Her work interrogates the traditional hierarchical positioning in these treatments, which privilege complex and 'realistic' treatments of character over simpler ones, and concentrates instead on what she calls a 'pragmatics of character' (4)—-the ways in which eighteenth-century readers and writers used the characters in their books. Lynch's reading centers mainly around the adjustment of author and audience to newly-evolving and changing social relationships and a newly-commercialized world, made manifest in the opening of global trade routes and the rise of credit and retail practices.
It is in the Romantic period, Lynch points out, that characters first prompted readers to conceive of them as beings who take on an independent life, and who can escape their social contexts. She points to a 'Caveat Emptor' as an 'unspoken motto of "the character business''' (3) which has its roots in the Romanticesque assessments of literary critics. Carlyle, for example, proclaimed as the genuine article those characters with the greatest verisimilitude, and vilified the 'hollow vizards' of the counterfeit, 'painted' variety. Under such critical directives the task of the reader was to distinguish the 'real' from the spurious; but here Lynch aims to give critical studies of the novel a post-romantic way to consider eighteenth-century readers, who, she claims, were interested not in a character's realism, but (in ways which reflect a new, commodity-driven culture) in standards by which characters were grotesque and exaggerated or natural and economical. As the high art of the period set about distinguishing itself against popular and amateur art through its alliance with an ideal of 'pictorial abstemiousness,' (59) overelaborated characters came to be seen as low and bawdy, and 'inferior' forms became identified with excess. In the work of Burney and her heirs Lynch sees femininity itself redefined as what remains behind after the decorous frills of female attire have been stripped aside, and Camilla is seen as a warning which 'depicts the harm shopping does to women' (179). Playing off one of many puns she uncovers with exhaustive etymological work, Lynch means the title of the book, and its major theme, to signify 'economy' in both the sense of market culture, and the degree of prudence and austerity with which authors were expected by critical standards to flesh out their characters. And inscribed in these discursive transformations, she argues, are new protocols for organizing class and gender relations.
As she moves forward to an engagement with 'Romantic-period reading relations' Lynch's primary objective is to expose as a fiction the 'romantic-era story about the spirit of the age' (123) which seeks to cast history as the story of a return to nature and oneself. Under this agenda, still prevalent among some literary historians and put forward by Cold War generation critics like Robert Langbaum, the 'round' characters existed within flat characters all along and stand in as fictional representatives of unrealized potential and intrinsic meaning. Such paradigms place Austen, with her psychological fathomings, at the horizon of a literary potential for a full and authentic report of the human experience. But drawing on the work of Clifford Siskin, Alan Richardson, and others, Lynch reassesses that which purports to be latent in an eighteenth-century ancien régime as a construct, propounded by Wordsworth in particular, which arises solely out of Romantic-era ideals of freedom, revolution, and the worth of the individual, and which persists in modern-day thought. Lynch argues that changes in the retailing of novels and in the way readers 'used' characters played as important a role as the 'democratic' ideals which are flaunted as the cause of the mimetic progression in the character novel.
Lynch's study covers an impressive array of novel forms—-the epistolary, the gothic, the sentimental and the picaresque share the stage with amatory fiction and the novel of manners. Beginning with Sterne, Lynch shows how the writers of the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century, 'preoccupied with ordering the arts,' (23) took a concentrated interest in an economy of character which manifested itself in wrangling over the quantity of description allocated characterization, and in striking a balance in discursive propriety which depended on a subtle equilibrium between enough and too much. At stake in Lynch's analysis is the way in which 'participants in the debate over added strokes were intervening in the distribution of cultural capital' (56). In literature, Lynch argues, the craze for caricatures which associated characters with physiognomic information—-birthmarks, scars, rings and other staples of the recognition scene—was going downmarket as the 'truths that mattered' (27) about character became increasingly dissociated from the visible body and from the fine description which had major market value in a post-Lockean age of empiricism.
As she outlines this new way of thinking of literature-in 'the era when everything is rising' (77) as a history of social practices, Lynch unearths an impressive amount of data about the cultural milieu of the period. Stripping away layers of critical accretion she reveals the view that an eighteenth century culture which gave definition to physiognomic, typographic, and numismatic characters was also replete with the attendant conditions which made meaningful many of the eighteenth-century writings we now call novels. Part I examines works by Richardson. Fielding, DeFoe, and less widely-read authors like Delarivier Manley, Eliza Haywood, and Jane Barker. Resisting the current trend in eighteenth-century studies which demands that the genuinely novelistic be cordoned off in genre studies from everything else, Lynch argues for the importance of a 'transmedia context' (29). The book, in fact, is rife with marginalized and little-known authors of novels, travel narratives, and conduct books. Mary Brunton, Regina Maria Roche, Eaton Stannard Barrett, and Pierce Egan take their place alongside acknowledged masters like Austen, Radcliffe and Burney. As printing presses in overdrive made highly descriptive characters—literary, artistic, and theatrical— more available to a newly-literate middle class, the more déclassé they appeared and the more stratified became the market and artistic principles separating high art from mass culture. And fiction writers, she argues, could understand themselves to be engaged moreover in the common project of assembling characterlogical compendia along with engravers, 'phizzmongers' or caricaturists, and even dramatic performers.
'Character' was also connected, Lynch argues in another of her etymological tours de force, with the typographical mark—-the printed character—-whom writers like DeFoe saw as 'types impressing their Forms on Paper by Punction or the Work of an Engine' (31)—- a fact that underscores the culture's linkage of character, countenance, and legibility and hearkens back to the importance placed in the seventeenth century on reading the Book of Nature. People without 'character' are defined in the period as people without an adequate command of language. Readers began to personalize the character of their consciousness with printed goods and 'character collections' which were driven by a market economy and with forms of copying,—- increasingly central to imperial and bureaucratic enterprises. Language, moreover, being embodied in 'characters,'—the marks on the page—takes part in the phenomenal world and not solely in the private realm, and writers like Jane Barker and Daniel DeFoe stressed the materiality of the book and its power to stabilize national language and act as a socializing force.
Chapter two examines the 'money-centric' (98) novels of the 1760's and 1770's which starred currency as the lead (Adventures of a Bank-Note; Chrysal, or, the Adventures of a Guinea; The Adventures of a Rupee) and views them as featuring a 'crisis of legibility,' rooted in the Enlightenment discourse, which saw social knowledge as produced by the eye's encounter with an array of a new market of objects for sale. These works in the 'It-Narrator' genre feature money which takes on adventures paralleling those of the gentleman in picaresque narratives of social circulation. Like Smollet's gentleman protagonist, money takes on the work of surveillance and representation, and this substitution of money for human protagonist, Lynch argues, 'humanizes' an economic system which made English men and women uneasy with its attendant risk-taking and threat of bankruptcy. Money begins to stand in for people's concord to a standard of value. In the fictions of social circulation the 'bland handsomeness' and 'neoclassical indeterminacy' (82, 83) that mark the gentleman-protagonist are antithesized by the deviations in Vitruvian ideals of proportion which distinguish various character types the hero encounters. Lynch examines the tensions between these undercharacterizations and overcharacterizations, and suggests that mid-century writers were keen to investigate not only the distinguishing features of minor characters and antagonists, but what was impersonal and indefinite about their fictional personages. Mid-century narratives explore in stories about mistaken identities, exchanged lives, and tales about foundlings the possibilities opened up by fictional characters whose identities are interchangeable. Yet Lynch goes on to suggest that in the latter half of the eighteenth century, in response to increasing pressure on novels to engage the sympathies of readers, authors move away from the typed characters and 'satiric anatomies' (88) which serve as visual aids to virtues and vices and begin to teeter on the brink of making protagonists into 'jaunty eccentrics' (85).
While early nineteenth century critics like Walter Scott and John Wilson Croker saw the lack of particularity in literary characters as a defect and lauded the works of Austen and Scott himself, they dismissed the more generic and opaque offerings of Clara Reeves and practitioners of the 'Burney School' novels. Lynch reads the expanded inner life of Romantic characters as an artifact—like window-shopping and picturesque landscape viewing—-of 'a new form of self-culture,' the 'mechanism of a new mode of class awareness.' Hazlitt in Lynch's view does for the novel what Wordsworth does for poetry—he locates its aesthetic value in a return to nature which manifests itself in a concern with the close-at-hand and with psychological rather than superficial complexity. The reading revolution which made some books matter more than others for their readers, and the acceleration of the print market in the Romantic period led to the stratification by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Radcliffe and others, into classes of readers who exemplified the range from 'well read-ness' to 'promiscuous consumerism' (130). The reading of characters began in the Romantic period to serve as a pretext for moral self-revision as reading matter itself became involved with the social struggles that made possible the passage from gentry to middle-class hegemony. A new appreciation of domesticity, circulated in the narratives of Gilpin as in the poetry of Burns and Wordsworth, promoted the ideal of an introspective reader who stayed at home. Drawing on the work of Jon Klancher Lynch argues that the cultural capital of reading allowed audiences to 'amass intellectual wealth' as it helped negotiate the transition from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries.
Lynch has devoted entire chapters to Burney and Austen as she explores the gendered assumptions of scenes of fashionable consumption and polite conversation. Drawing on the work of Margaret Anne Doody and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace Lynch recovers Burney from her abnegation as the 'chief local colorist of the Georgian retail scene' (168). Burney becomes, in Lynch's economy, a reworker of the sublime, because the 'character' of her characters is hidden away and the reader must labor mentally to puzzle it out through insightful reading. Austen is seen as mobilizing character interiority in a way which 'articulates the personal with the mass-produced' (210) and privileges the particularity of her heroines' voice over the pro forma and the proliferating, both in book culture and the social machine. Her fiction is seen as dealing with the problems of how to separate the meanings which compose the inner self from those which compose the spheres of common life and social commerce as en masse circulation of cultural capital—including fiction—-threatened to degrade an elite literate class's transactions with books, and as it came to be connected with both a new desire for individualism (as opposed to the literacy of the crowd), and with a desire for position within an economy of prestige.