Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland

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Victorian Review

To Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, the Irish were a primitive people who had developed neither the means nor the aptitude for proper economic development.

The famine was a sign that only sound trade and industry policies would produce a healthy economy; now that the truth of Ireland's backwardness was known, the right economic policies could be introduced. Other witnesses to the famine argued that economists should moderate their commitment to the labor theory of value with an awareness of Ireland's particular economic conditions, its "national character. Still others insisted that Ireland must be governed under a "new domestic economy" that used "the domestic household as a model of economic efficiency, tempered and motivated by sentimental feeling" The different perspectives on the famine, English and Irish, bureaucratic and literary, helped produce new forms of economic thought.

The chapter 4 on the Irish famine is, I think, the most important in the book. Whereas the other four chapters all consist of readings of relatively familiar works of fiction and theory, this one considers a range of original archive materials including government documents, private letters and memoranda, and notebooks and diaries, many of which have never been studied before. Bigelow presents a selection of the materials; an examination of more of these documents would make a very stimulating and important study in itself.

For what they show, importantly, is how the discipline of economics was transformed under the pressure of competing epistemologies which it then adapted into its own general methodology.

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This is precisely the kind of process that defines the formation and evolution of the disciplines. Ireland plays some part in the literary chapters. Much is made, for instance, of Dickens' caricatures of Irish immigrants. By and large, however, the literary chapters offer new readings of well-known mid-Victorian novels, Dickens' Bleak House and Gaskell's Mary Barton , Cranford , and North and South, that further document the transformation in mid-century economic thought from mechanism to subjectivity.

As a corollary to this transformation, Bigelow introduces yet another term in his account of the rise of economics: gender. Bigelow considers the contemporaneousness and conjunctions of this novel with one of the essays in Dickens' journal Household Words , "The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. It is not gold or wealth as such that sustain the market economy, but rather the subjective desire of the participants.

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Credit is merely the imaginary instrument that propels and inspires that desire. Dickens' point, Bigelow argues, is not to humanize but rather to feminize the marketplace. Dickens employs a similar strategy in Bleak House. While the foggy labyrinth of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is meant to encapsulate the ceaseless and intolerable grinding of the mechanistic universe imagined by political economists, the new subjectivist economics is allegorized in the novel in the figure of Esther Summerson.

Like the Old Lady of Dickens' essay, Esther propels the action of the novel by stimulating the subjective desire of the male characters. Bigelow covers the entire century — during which political economy evolved. In Romanticism, Economics, and the Question of Culture Philip Connell considers the implications of a particular moment in that development: the anonymous publication of Thomas Robert Malthus' An Essay on the Principle of Population in Malthus' Essay sparked one of the most crucial controversies of the period, the question of whether human beings are motivated purely by physical want or whether they can curtail their desires through moral reflection.

Connell debunks the idea, well accepted among Romantic scholars, that Malthus and the Romantics were ideological and temperamental opposites by outlining in the first chapter the similarities in their educational and philosophical backgrounds. Malthus was a Cambridge-educated Anglican minister whose skepticisms about Paleyite theology and Godwinian perfectibility prompted him to point out the physical limitations on human intellectual and social advancement.

Malthus' views on suffering and self-awareness were similar to the young Romantics' and might well have endeared him to them, or at the very least, not have antagonized them. Many of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's early writings have a decidedly Malthusian bent, and neither of them ever stated their opposition to the population principle outright. So where did the Romantics' "opposition" to Malthus come from? For Connell, it was simply a matter of political expediency. The second edition of the Essay appeared just as hostilities against France resumed in The country was in the grips of yet another invasion alarm; national unity was the order of the day.

While it was greeted with cheers from Malthus' own Whiggish intellectual set, the Essay 's grim conclusions about poverty and population were not the best antidote to the malaise of war. Many former radicals redefined their views in patriotic terms. To defend or agree with Malthus at such a time risked further calumny.

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So in his review of the second edition of the Essay in the Analytical Review , using Coleridge's notes on the subject, Southey lambasted it for suggesting that overpopulation is a matter of scientific inevitability and not moral choice. Malthus' population principle implied that faith in a benevolent God, or more to the point, pride in one's country and the progressiveness of its institutions, would have little effect on the cause of national unity.

Such views would effectually "starve the poor" cited in Connell 40 and thus encourage social division. Southey sidestepped the fact that Malthus had addressed this question in the edition in much the way that Southey and Coleridge wanted, by suggesting that religious leaders might encourage "moral virtue," i. But, Connell claims, the theory of population, with its moral and philosophical assumptions, was simply not the point of Southey's attack.

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By attacking Malthus, Southey and indirectly Coleridge could at once establish their credentials with the governing Pittite party who were not necessarily opposed to Malthus anyway and, at the same time, refashion their democratic radicalism to suit the moderate Whiggism of wartime. Expanding on his remarks about the importance of the press in chapter 1, Connell's main argument in the rest of the book is that whatever differences there were between the economists and the Romantics tended to settle on the question of how to improve and reform education in the wake of Britain's massive commercial, industrial, and population expansions.

Tracing the development of British education reform from Stewart's lectures at the University of Edinburgh, through his students, James Mill, Francis Jeffrey, and Henry Brougham, to prominent philanthropic entrepreneurs like Samuel Bailey and William Roscoe, Connell shows that the number one issue for political economists throughout the country was how to establish the intellectual principles that would keep the people from falling into the malaise that over-population would, on its own, induce. Malthus supported the establishment of state-wide primary education at the very least because a sound understanding of the basic principles of growth and restraint fundamental to the population principle were, Malthus argued, the best means of counteracting it.

James Mill contended that the establishment of permanent principles of commerce and economy was the final, crucial stage in the process of human civilization, whereby the spread of ideas made possible by commerce, industry, and technology would be codified into "a 'common stock. In contrast to Mill's optimism, Francis Jeffrey's "historical sociology of literature and learning. Jeffrey's reviews of the Romantic poets are not, in Connell's estimation, merely sneering witticisms. They express Jeffrey's general dismay at the collapse of the Scottish enlightenment ideals of engaged, comprehensive knowledge in the wake of an increasingly diffuse and fragmented field of publications that produced "superficial literary forms united only by their transient mediocrity" But though Malthusian education reform played a major part in the growth of the secular Whig ideology, it also strongly influenced Christian Toryism.

Malthus had always claimed that his proposals for political and intellectual reform in the wake of the population principle were fundamentally Christian. Since government itself could do little to stop the tide of overpopulation, and the Universities were beyond the means of most citizens, the responsibility for communicating the harmful effects of and possible remedies for sexual license must fall to the institution already entrusted with the moral welfare of the nation: the Church. Among the most important Christian Malthusians was Thomas Chalmers.

A prominent Presbyterian minister, Chalmers believed strongly in the benefits of a healthy commercial state. But he also campaigned vigorously on behalf of a Christian doctrine that could teach people how to cope with the effects of commercial and industrial expansion. For Connell, Chalmers represents an important precedent for the "liberal Toryism" of Coleridge's and Southey's later writings on such questions as national education, public debt, and Catholic Emancipation.

Coleridge, for instance, supported the Liverpool government's continuation of the suspension of cash payments because he believed that national debt fostered the circulation of the "symbols" of rank, achievement, and Christian reason that sustained the nation. Following Burke, Coleridge did believe that the responsibility for harnessing the potential of commerce must lie with an aristocratic class who were already empowered by birth with the trust of the nation's intellectual and economic heritage, that is, honor and land.

Coleridge's ambition to turn this heritage into the foundation for a class of intellectual elite—what he called the "national Church" and later the "Clerisy"—resembles Chalmers' Malthusian mandate for putting the education of the country in the hands of the Ministry. Coleridge's abstract hermeneutics is not, therefore, the antithesis of political economy, in spite of Coleridge's remonstrations against materialism. Rather, Coleridge was working in the tradition of political economy itself, offering another version of the national education program that was its intellectual motivation.

Connell's work is primarily archival. The light that Connell sheds on the Romantics' interest in political economy will, I think, have a profound impact on the way Romanticism is understood as a political and pedagogical movement. This is, however, primarily a work of intellectual history.

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Connell does little in the way of close reading other than to confirm how Romantic writing engages with larger economic concerns. For instance, Connell argues that Wordsworth's Excursion is a crucial document for understanding Romantic contributions to educational reform, but he barely touches on Wordsworth's poetics, the complexities of which have been shown by a number of critics to engage the epistemological and hermeneutic conundrums of economic thinking. That said, the historical point about literary Romanticism's close proximity to political economy is made so clearly that it must surely change the way we regard our own disciplinary assumptions as well as those of the Romantics themselves.

By contrast, in Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the Species , Maureen McLane reads in great detail the dialectic encounter between Romantic poetry and the epistemological problems of Malthusian political economy. Of the three books, McLane's is the most theoretically intricate and ambitious. Connell and Bigelow knit the economists and the poets together in a historical web of scholarly and political connections.

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McLane tries to theorize the web itself: she addresses not only how the debate between Malthusian political economy and Romantic poetry inspires questions of writing, orality, identity, and agency, but also how those questions define present anxieties in the academy about the relations among the humanist disciplines. But like Bigelow and Connell, McLane is out to challenge preconceived notions about the distinctiveness of literature from the other disciplines of the human sciences—most particularly political economy—and about the superiority of literary or humanistic understanding that such preconceptions tend also to imply.

All three writers insist that in order to remain relevant, the Romantics had to address matters of current political, social, and economic concern: money, famine, population, education. But this argument goes beyond historical context. It postulates that the significance of literary history lies in its appreciation of the epistemological encounter between literature and economics at the moment of their respective formation as academic disciplines.

The literary history of the Romantic period, then, has as much to do with understanding the relevance—or possibly the irrelevance—of literature today as it does with understanding the relations between literature and other forms of knowledge years ago. An analogy for the dilemma of the humanities is the one suggested repeatedly by McLane herself: the struggle between Victor Frankenstein and his creation. In that essay, and in the sections of the book dealing with Frankenstein , McLane argues that the novel allegorizes the debate between Malthus and Shelley's father William Godwin that had originally inspired Malthus' Essay in the first place and which continued until Godwin's Reply to Malthus was published in Their failure signifies, in turn, the pyrrhic victory of "species logic" represented by Malthusian population theory.

Both Victor and the Creature relish humanistic learning as the source of their ideal self-conception as pan-European "man. Certainly all believe in the power of the poetic imagination over and above the reproductive capacity of writing. Cosmopolitanism is here confounded by the fact of national difference or, in Bigelow's terms, "national character.

Economic history of Ireland

Humanism itself is trumped by the competitivness and "misery" as Malthus called it, of physical "species being. And while the intentions are good—he wants them to live in "native" exile in South America—it is chemistry that must do the dirty work. And even though his tearing apart of the female monster helps him to re-enter the "human social body," the monster's vengeance encapsulates the constant pressure on that humanism by the fact of production and reproduction.

Thus, McLane argues, the novel stages an encounter between competing modes of being-in-the-world. Alongside Frankenstein , McLane reviews other crucial statements of poetic autonomy of the period: Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads as read and re-read by Coleridge and Shelley's Defence of Poetry. Following Alan Bewell's Wordsworth and the Enlightenment Yale University Press, , McLane sees in Wordsworth's poetry a further attempt to formulate the "logic of Man": that is, an anthropology or "anthropologic.

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  • The consequence of this encounter is a reformulation of the idea of "man" as a dialectical encounter between reason, which is unique to the "human," and sensibility, which is fundamental to human being. Neither is distinct—just as in Wordsworth's poems no "native" is ever "inhuman"—but neither can possibly be one and the same as the other. Wordsworth's poetry stages these encounters between different kinds of humanity.

    In "We Are Seven," which McLane reads brilliantly, the child does not represent savagery as such as perhaps the "master" understands her , but rather a form of sociability that for the poem's readers confounds the master's autocratic mathematizing. At the same time, though, the poem leaves the master's enlightenment prejudices very much intact. For McLane, the poem depicts not an encounter between rustic and thinker, but rather a "simulacrum" 61 of such an encounter, an apparently vain attempt to merge the universes of orality and writing together without recognizing as Wordsworth's poem seems to do that these universes also exist in quite distinct dimensions.

    Although one may also acknowledge the existence of Famine writings in Irish Gaelic and other languages, these have not been included in this article, mainly because the number of resources in English is already so great. The article charts as well the variety of seminal research on writings on the Famine, displaying earlyst-century concerns and suggesting possibilities for future directions. The overviews generally challenge the claim in Eagleton that there are hardly any literary texts that recall the Great Irish Famine.

    These critical studies unearth often forgotten literary texts; address the role of generic conventions in representing the Famine; and interpret literary reconfigurations of the Famine in connection to nonliterary writings, such as sermons, economic treatises, journalistic reports, and political pamphlets. Morash examines representations of the Famine in poetry and fiction from the era by authors such as James Clarence Mangan, William Carleton, and Anthony Trollope. Kelleher analyzes travel writings, poetry, and fiction on the Famine, focusing on 19th-century writings by Irish women, such as Mrs. Hoare and Margaret Brew. Cusack and Goss provides insights into canonical Irish literary texts that either directly or more implicitly recall the Famine past.

    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
    Fiction, famine, and the rise of economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland

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