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News of protracted economic crisis has a way of making any story of financial collapse—past or present, fact or fiction—shimmer with reflected relevance. “Ring any bells?” asked the London Observer of the bank fraud subplot in the BBC’s production of Little Dorrit, which British historian Tristram Hunt lauded in October 2008 as “a rich text for our supremely troubled financial times.” When the series aired on PBS in the spring of 2009, American viewers were quick to cite parallels between Charles Dickens’s Mr. Merdle and Bernard Madoff (whose Ponzi scheme, unknown at the time of production, had just come to light). Two decades earlier, Vincent Canby’s New York Times review of a 1988 miniseries of the same novel found the disgraced speculator “an eerily prescient Dickens creation” in the context of the Savings and Loan scandals. While this compulsory economic déjà vu can be a little facile, we should not be surprised to learn that Victorian tales of financial panic seemed remarkably timely in their own time, as Tamara Wagner notes in the Introduction to her new book. Headlines on John Sadleir’s role in the Tipperary Bank crash and his subsequent suicide in February 1856 presented one obvious source for Merdle’s character—yet Little Dorrit (1855-57) had begun its serial run in December 1855, and Dickens’s afterword of May 1857 equivocally alludes to the Sadleir case as a justification for the novel and as merely a “curious coincidence.” Wagner thus does well to caution against overestimating the significance of topicality: “Dickens did not need specific financial scandals to create fictional speculators” (3), she notes, since the conditions for crisis were present at any moment in the normal functioning of capitalist markets. Why then does Victorian fiction remain so anachronistically relevant to the economic imagination? In perennially insisting on its applicability to the way we live now, what are we in fact assuming about the relationship between capitalism and history—and about literature’s place within or outside both?
These are crucial questions for Victorian literary studies. Indeed, studies of the novel since Ian Watt’s account of its rise in the eighteenth century can hardly avoid addressing the genre’s connection to the rise of laissez-faire capitalism. Is the novel uniquely positioned to reflect on the social transformations that attend its history (as Georg Lukács argued in The Historical Novel [trans. 1962])? Or is it implicated in the ideologies of market society and of individualized economic personhood that brought it about—one of several “genres of the credit economy,” as Mary Poovey’s recent book suggests? Critics pursuing these questions in recent years have begun to challenge the presumptive separateness of literature and economics. The New Economic Criticism (1999), edited by Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen, crystallized this trend. Regenia Gagnier’s work made further inroads in revealing the aesthetic side of Homo economicus. Identifying a crucial shift from labor theories of value to a new emphasis on consumer demand and individual taste in the late nineteenth century, The Insatiability of Human Wants (2000) connected Victorian literary movements to W. Stanley Jevons’s theory of marginal utility. Catherine Gallagher’s The Body Economic (2006) distinguished the nineteenth-century economic imagination from classical Smithian thought on different grounds; making Thomas Malthus a central figure, her project redefined political economy’s goals in terms of organic life and sensuous experience. These studies stress not only the historical particularity of economic discourse but also its inseparability from artistic and cultural developments.
Economic criticism typically comes under one of two rubrics: historicist studies of the uses and representations of financial instruments and monetary exchange on the one hand, and analyses of the aesthetic and ethical dimensions as well as the intellectual history of economic thought on the other. Two recent books—Tamara S. Wagner’s Financial Speculation in Victorian Fiction and Kathleen Blake’s Pleasure of Benthamism—exemplify these approaches. Wagner’s project takes up the concerns of such works as Patrick Brantlinger’s Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain (1996), Paul Delany’s Literature, Money, and the Market from Trollope to Amis (2002), Francis O’Gorman’s Victorian Literature and Finance (2007), and Poovey’s Genres of the Credit Economy (2008). Blake’s project, which addresses political economy as a system of thought, pursues lines of inquiry advanced by Gagnier’s and Gallagher’s aforementioned studies as well as Philip Connell’s Romanticism, Economics, and the Question of “Culture” (2001), Gordon Bigelow’s Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (2003), and Audrey Jaffe’s The Affective Life of the Average Man (2010). Though their methods differ, Wagner and Blake both tell stories of Victorian economy which have surprisingly little to do with getting and spending; nor with production, consumption, work, valorization, class formation, or the dynamics of exchange. Taken together, they suggest that the economic discourse of the period was more concerned with subjective issues of interpersonal trust, character and identity; social and cultural legibility; morality; affect; and pleasure and pain.
Wagner’s book aims to explain why the Victorians found stories of financial ruin and economic crisis so compelling. By plotting stock market fluctuations into literary narratives, she argues, nineteenth-century novelists did more than just reflect new monetary concerns. The fiction of speculation explores “changing ideas of moral probity and indeterminate identity, creditworthiness and the management of financial risks, the experience of instability and the contesting strategies to consider its repercussions at home and abroad” (3). In Wagner’s view, the allure and risks of investment also presented the novel with opportunities to stabilize its own paper currency. Examining “the narrative functions of financial transactions” in Victorian fiction (7), her book considers—somewhat less systematically than Poovey’s—how the novel situated literary production in relation to an increasingly speculative economy.
Wagner makes a case for treating speculation not simply as a theme but as an element of novelistic form. She proposes that a range of character types, plot devices, and subgenres, from silver-fork fiction to the “sensational stock-market novel” to the suburban Gothic, developed the means of anticipating financial risk. Her readings are often insightful, though—despite stated cautions against thematic criticism—they focus mainly on literal instances of financial plots rather than examining the figurative dimensions of speculation. Beginning with the story of estate speculation in Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon (1817), Wagner’s first chapter shows how silver-fork novels adapt classic marital and inheritance plots into speculation plots. The next examines the creation of the stock-market villain and crises of financial accountability as defining features of 1860s sensation fiction; readings of Ellen Wood’s The Shadow of Ashlydyat (1863), Mary Braddon’s Aurora Floyd (1863), and Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1864-65) illustrate a growing novelistic impetus to test the “creditworthiness” of all individuals and to construct a “workable business morality at home” as well as in the market (88). Two subsequent chapters compare literary figures of the speculator in foreign/colonial and domestic contexts. Analyzing texts from Little Dorrit and William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Newcomes (1855) to Charles Reade’s Hard Cash (1863), Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), and Charlotte Ridell’s The Uninhabited House (1875), these chapters show how difficult the “containment of financial instability” proves at the level of character as well as plot (175). If Poovey’s claim is that novels helped Victorians learn to stop worrying and love finance capitalism, Wagner seems unconvinced that fiction ever fully dispelled the anxieties of investment.
Interesting though this project is, its stakes remain somewhat obscure in the end. If Victorian fiction “refused simply to rehearse moral or economic discourses” about credit and risk (173), then what did it do instead? Did it place itself outside the realms of moral judgment and economic exchange alike? If the novel was neither an instrument of the credit economy nor a strictly autonomous moral commentator on it, then how did it establish its lasting credibility on the subject? And is there nothing to be said about the historical and political significance of financialization beyond its literary representations? Wagner’s book eschews debate, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with Marxist critics, Foucaultians, liberals, new historicists, new formalists, poststructuralists, or any other recognizable critical position. To be sure, it offers complex descriptive claims about the role of financial instability in the development of novelistic subgenres. But it does not engage in direct critical argument either about the formal particularity of fiction or about the novel’s relationship to class concepts or to liberal individualism.
Kathleen Blake, by contrast, relishes controversy. Her Pleasures of Benthamism mounts an unapologetic defense of liberal political economy and of Utilitarianism. “I consider utility, the primal pleasure principle of Utilitarianism, to be the theoretical starting point for political economy,” writes Blake (31). In terse, declarative language, this book chastens critics for their ignorance of Utilitarian thought and vindicates the intellectual legacy of Jeremy Bentham as central to Victorian literature and culture. Blake argues that Bentham has been too much maligned, “identified with hard Gradgrindery and carceral panopticism” and rarely viewed as she views him: “as a spokesman for pleasures of all sorts” (42). In her account, he stands opposed to Pauline asceticism and to the disciplinary self-denial routinely associated with capitalism’s Protestant ethic (42). Blake’s goal is not simply to restore Bentham’s sex appeal but also to burnish his credentials as an ethical thinker; by treating human happiness as a sum total to be maximized, she proposes, Bentham assumes that the pleasures and pains of all individuals count equally toward that sum (43). This project thus reevaluates Utilitarianism as a gratifying, liberating, and radically egalitarian philosophy. Emphasizing pleasure rather than capital as the primary end of political economy, it makes the dismal science look positively cheerful.
Blake pursues spirited debate but chooses a somewhat unlikely pair of opponents: F. R. Leavis and Michel Foucault. She casts these strange bedfellows as the key critics of political economy from the standpoints of high-cultural anti-Utilitarianism (Leavis) and of “ideology critique” (26), which might not be the most apt description of Foucaultian discourse analysis. It is true that much Victorianist literary criticism and humanist scholarship throughout the twentieth century was suspicious of political economy in the ways that Blake suggests. Her characterization of Leavis is accurate on this point, but it seems less plausible to cast him either as the source of this sentiment or as a lasting authoritative voice in criticism today. Her gripe with Foucault is more understandable. Other recent defenders of Victorian liberal thought, including Amanda Anderson, have similarly taken issue with his account of the rise of disciplinary power and the skepticism it raised towards liberalism. But the logic of Blake’s critique is confusing. Apparently responding to Foucault’s statement that panoptic institutions themselves are designed to “be subjected to regular and constant inspections… by the public” thus ensuring that “the disciplinary mechanism will be democratically controlled” (Discipline and Punish 207), she objects, “He calls the panoptic idea democratic but hardly sustains such an understanding by his choice to characterize its workings as those of a prison” (54). Would Bentham himself have denied that his Panopticon was first and foremost a design for a prison? That aside, Foucault’s account of the democratic control of the disciplinary apparatus is not an argument in its favor. When Blake counters his reading of Bentham by citing the “inspection of the inspector” as evidence of democratic accountability (54), she inadvertently reinforces what is in fact the main point of Foucault’s analysis: that post-Enlightenment paradigms of governance rely on technologies of normalization and surveillance (of which the inspection of the inspector is a perfect example). For the purposes of Discipline and Punish, the formal egalitarianism of inspection houses and other such institutions is a means rather than an end of power; this egalitarian premise did not conduce to actual equality but subtended the bourgeoisie’s rise to political dominance, much as the discourse of liberty has often subtended the policing of ostensibly abnormal individuals and of subject classes and populations. Blake makes bolder counterclaims when she simply embraces surveillance as a positive good.
Beyond its two chief adversaries, Pleasures of Benthamism deals only cursorily and none too convincingly with Karl Marx, whose critique of political economy loses all historical significance here. Perhaps this reduced emphasis is in reaction to past critical tradition. It may well have been true for some time, as Woodmansee and Osteen perceived in the 1990s, that most literary critics’ acquaintance with economics was restricted to the first volume of Capital (1867). But that seems no longer to be the case; finance and political economy are now major topics of Victorianist scholarship, and recent studies have brought closer attention to (and have drawn finer distinctions among) such thinkers as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Stanley Jevons. In any event, while Blake could probably find some basis for disputing Capital’s appraisal of “the arch-philistine, Jeremy Bentham” or arguing with Marx’s interlocutors, she attempts instead to harmonize the voice of Communism with liberal political economy and with the reformism of Mill. Class analysis and class struggle effectively become irrelevant. “For the industrial labourer,” Blake surmises, Marx “wants nothing so much as the shaving off of hours of surplus labour” (87); never mind the abolition of private property and ultimately the end of any distinction between “the industrial labourer” and the rest of society. There is no mention of twentieth-century Marxist theory or the Frankfurt School’s contribution to ideology critique (in the work of Herbert Marcuse, for example, who valued the pleasure principle in quite different terms than did Bentham, or in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s critique of Enlightenment instrumentalism). More conspicuously missing is any discussion of Matthew Arnold—one of the key Victorian voices of anti-Utilitarian sentiment, a major influence on Leavis, and a complex figure because he remains a self-styled liberal critic of Victorian liberalism and an exemplar of the divided legacy that liberalism has often come to represent (as Elaine Hadley has argued in “On a Darkling Plain,” in Victorian Studies 48 ). Perhaps Arnold was not alone among liberal thinkers in sitting somewhat more uneasily with Benthamism and capitalism than this study tends to acknowledge.
Yet the main virtue of Blake’s project is evident in her more nuanced and admirably thorough attention to Bentham’s own work. She brings an impressive knowledge of this corpus to bear on some nicely provocative readings of Victorian literary texts. If Bentham is exonerated of “hard Gradgrindery” in this book’s earnest tribute to the pleasure-gardens he imagined encircling his Panopticon, Gradgrind himself looks softer by the end of the chapter on Hard Times (1854). The fact-driven schoolmaster becomes more Benthamite, rather than less so, when he finally embraces the seemingly unproductive pleasures of Sleary’s circus and the credo that “people mutht be amuthed.” In subsequent chapters, Thomas Carlyle and Anthony Trollope likewise turn out to be closet Benthamites: Carlyle, in promoting a work-ethic in Sartor Resartus (1833-34) that merges productivity with personal happiness (90-92), and Trollope, in subjecting the protagonist of The Warden (1855) to a “Public Opinion Tribunal” (104). Blake argues that Septimus Harding is not simply browbeaten into resigning his sinecure by journalists manufacturing bogus popular sentiment against him but instead arrives at a new view of his circumstances and “no longer feels justified in his position, based on a new-found work ethic” (104). This is a genuinely suggestive reading of the novel.
Such readings, however, entail a peculiar argumentative strategy: that of overcoming opposition by denying its existence. The primary mode of persuasion throughout this book is to show how any text or idea that appears to refute Bentham in fact proves compatible with his Utilitarianism. This has the virtue of producing some fresh revisionist interpretations of familiar texts. At the same time, it may leave readers wondering what, if anything, remains in tension with Benthamism—and why, if his ideas were more widely shared than we might think, he figured as an antagonist to Dickens and others long before Leavis or Foucault.
The chapter on The Mill on the Floss (1860) offers the most fully developed reading in this book. Connecting Mr. Tulliver’s financial ruin to the seemingly unrelated tragedy of his children’s death in the flood, Blake argues that both episodes are the outcome of the same confusion: a failure to distinguish between the economy of the gift and that of capital. The chapter’s references to Marcel Mauss’s seminal anthropology of the gift, however, create false analogies and false dichotomies. In the first instance, gift-giving and capitalism for Mauss are not radically opposed insofar as both are economic exchanges demanding reciprocation. Further, Blake draws a contrast between patriarchal gift economies in which women “frequently are the gifts” and “the theoretical equality of persons in capitalism” (113), but she proceeds to identify women in Eliot’s novel as the main agents in such a gift economy—givers and receivers rather than property—and men as agents in a capitalist economy. The gendering of economic discourse is similarly ambiguous in Blake’s chapter on the textile industry in Cranford (1851) and North and South (1854-55). The readings of these novels are otherwise plausible, albeit predictable, emphasizing Elizabeth Gaskell’s overriding optimism about the progressive tendencies of industrialization. The originality of this chapter lies in its comparison between Gaskell’s condition-of-England fiction and the parallel affirmation of economic development from a colonial perspective that Blake finds in Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World (1916). Whether the latter text also serves as a justification for imperialism is not entirely clear.
Pleasures of Benthamism is ultimately quite forthright in acknowledging Victorian liberalism’s close connection to imperialism. Blake’s final chapter recasts the issue in an unexpectedly affirmative light. Praising Bentham and the Mills (père et fils) as social thinkers uniquely attuned to cultural, historical, and geographical difference, she identifies in their writings a “liberal imperialist” stance that sometimes moves (dialectically?) toward “liberal anti-imperialism” (202, 220). Blake vindicates John Stuart Mill’s work for the British East India Company in these terms and goes so far as to defend Anglicizing educational policies as egalitarian. The measure of these arguments can be taken from the claim that British colonial bureaucracy in India had the advantage of fostering England’s own “state-supported system of universal education” and “a reformed, more meritocratic, work-based civil service” at home (211-12). Postcolonial scholars will not dispute the point that imperialist policies bolstered the English state, though Blake seems to regard this more as historical validation than as grounds for critique. “In empire there are evident impositions and evident damages,” she remarks neutrally, “but these do not dominate my analysis” (224); indeed they do not, and some readers may find the abstraction and lack of agency in this construction unsettling. The argument of the concluding chapter and of the book as a whole seems unlikely to convert its stated or implied opponents. But in the last analysis, Blake deserves credit for her frank and impassioned defense of Benthamism—and her work will surely find a more receptive audience than it might have in decades past.
If Victorianist critics were once allergic to Utilitarianism and political economy, viewing them either as monoliths of bourgeois ideology or else simply as vulgar and remote from the ennobling objects of literature, new economic criticism has altered these reactions in ways that continue to transform the field. Blake’s and Wagner’s books contribute to a growing body of interdisciplinary knowledge about Victorian economic thought and its narrative expressions. They remind us that nineteenth-century novels were never as anti-Utilitarian or antagonistic to monetary speculation as readers have sometimes assumed. Their own projects (Wagner’s in particular) will undoubtedly be hailed as timely by colleagues who, like many non-specialists either in fiction or in finance, have recently been initiated into the mysteries of derivatives. But the value of such work is not reducible to the trend of recasting past narratives of hard times as forecasts for these times; to the contrary, it relies on literary-historical specificity. Economic discourse of the twenty-first century, venturing toward behavioral approaches distant from classical or neoclassical political economy, may generate entirely different forms of fiction to theorize pleasure and justify the ways of capital to men. In the meantime, readers wishing to learn how Victorian fiction managed its own world’s speculative risks, ethical ambiguities, and desires for a greater good are likely to find both of these books informative and insightful.
Emily Steinlight is Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities and Harper Fellow at the University of Chicago. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the politics of population in nineteenth-century British literature.