Front Page Titles (by Subject) Introduction ARTHUR POLLARD University of Hull - The Representation of Business in English Literature
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Introduction ARTHUR POLLARD University of Hull - Arthur Pollard, The Representation of Business in English Literature 
The Representation of Business in English Literature, edited and with an Introduction by Arthur Pollard. Foreword by John Blundell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009).
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Making money is a dirty game. That sentence might almost sum up the attitude of English literature towards British business. Few writers have had first-hand experience of the world of commerce and industry. Their world is governed by the imaginative and the spiritual. It is no wonder therefore that they so often despise the other world that they see as materialistic, concerned with the despised but necessary activities of everyday existence, with matters of trade and work and wages and profits. Even if they do not condemn it for its materialism, they will see it as a world where things at best are very ordinary and uninspiring. For the most part, however, concerned as they are with the conflict of vice and virtue, they see businessmen as profiteers and bullies of their work-people.
As far back as Chaucer, the rogues on the Canterbury pilgrimage include the merchant concealing his debts, the reeve deceiving his lord and the shipman adept at theft and not above murder when it suits his purpose. In later periods a writer here and there may confer occasional favour on a diligent small businessman like Deloney’s Jack of Newbury, but a more memorable figure from the Tudor-Stuart period is Massinger’s Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, the aptly named stage-counterpart of the notoriously oppressive and ultimately disgraced monopolist, Sir Giles Mompesson. If in this period we find, as R. H. Tawney believed, the beginnings of British capitalism, it would develop amazingly over the next two centuries until with the burgeoning industrial revolution it emerged in recognisably modern form by 1800. It is not therefore until the nineteenth century and for the most part in the novel, itself often considered a bourgeois manifestation of literature, that we meet business in its various forms as a topic for extensive imaginative consideration.
Authorial attitudes, however, have not changed; imaginative writers, occupied largely with ethical values, have shown neither sympathy for nor appreciation of materialistic success and the qualities required for its attainment.
As William Speck emphasises, much of the interest in the subject in the early eighteenth century related to finance. That is not surprising in view of the effect that the South Sea Bubble had on business consciousness, though this, of course, was also the period in which more “respectable” commercial activity such as the establishment of the Bank of England occurred. Industry also began to develop from the cottage to the factory stage, so that John Dyer in The Fleece (1757) could speak, in his ignorance of actual working conditions, of the mill chimneys of Leeds and Birstall with their smoke pouring forth as “the incense of thanksgiving”! Predominantly, however, England remained agricultural, but with a dramatic transformation affecting this area of the economy also, so that Goldsmith, lamenting rural depopulation caused by the spreading enclosure movement, could write:
That might be true, but his fellow-poet Crabbe was quick to point out in The Village that the rural environment was a place where the garden was not always lovely but more often an abode of poverty, degradation and crime. Similar social effects would later be laid at the door of the new economic order of large-scale industrialism and mass production.
It will be clear from what has already been said that graft, unrestrained greed, and oppression of the poor are among the evils which literature has associated with business. There are yet others, and one which, though in lessening degree, persists into the twentieth century is that of class. The self-made man is the envy of those he has outstripped and despised by those with whom his wealth has now provided him the chance to associate, a matter of keeping us “in our proper stations.” It is beautifully exemplified in Jane Austen and especially in the episode from which Geoffrey Carnall has taken the title of his essay. The rich but vulgar Mrs. Elton, daughter “of a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called” (the hesitation and reluctant near-synonym are charged with meaning), snobbishly remarks of a family of her acquaintance: “How they got their fortune nobody knows. They came from Birmingham which is not a place to promise much. . . . One has not great hopes from Birmingham.”
This speech provides a defining moment in our subject. Jane Austen probably agreed with every word her character here spoke, but she questioned the right of Mrs. Elton to say it—and the reason was class. The author herself was “country,” she was “gentry”; her character, despite all her pretensions, is “trade,” and what right has “trade” to be scornful of Birmingham? Yet Birmingham was not Bristol. Bristol was old, it was merchanting, buying and selling; Birmingham was new, it was the city of Boulton and Watt. Neither, however, was “country”; both to Jane Austen were “trade.”
This contempt for “trade” persisted. We see it in such different contexts as those of Disraeli, Gissing and some of the poems of John Betjeman, but its significance lessens as the extent of engagement with and the degree of concern for business develops in the literature of the nineteenth century. The range of interest takes in finance and commerce, industry and agriculture. It may be useful to remind ourselves of just some of the examples that the period provided, the massive financial peculation of such precursors of Robert Maxwell as Merdle in Dickens’s Little Dorrit and Melmotte in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, or the trading activities of Dombey and Son. There are also the major industrial novels of that single decade 1845-55—Disraeli’s Sybil, Dickens’s Hard Times and Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South. Smalltown economic activity often linked to the rural hinterland is illustrated in George Eliot and in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, whilst Hardy supplies a vivid contrast in Tess of the d’Urbervilles between the contented prosperity of the Blackmore Vale and the upland starveling acres of Flintcomb Ash.
Whatever the context, it is always fundamentally a matter of men and money. Carlyle, in his idiosyncratic style, points up the conflict between business and literature, between matter and spirit, between life and possessions. The cash-nexus was not really a nexus at all.
Sooty Manchester—it too is built on the infinite Abysses; overspanned by the skyey Firmaments; and there is birth in it and death in it [and there] Brother, thou art a Man, I think; thou art not a mere building Beaver, or two-legged Cotton Spider; thou hast verily a Soul in thee.1
(Though Carlyle, incidentally, rejected his native Scottish Presbyterianism, it still suffuses his thought and language.) If Jane Austen makes us aware of the relationship of class and business, Carlyle compels us to take account of two other factors—the impact of thoroughgoing materialism on human society and in the reference to “Sooty Manchester” the effects of industry on the physical environment. In addition, his mention elsewhere in Past and Present of Morrison’s Pill, a popular quack remedy of the time, illustrates yet another ill in the trading system of the time, one which has its variations in Disraeli’s exposure of truck-selling and later in the exploits of Uncle Ponderevo in Wells’s Tono-Bungay. These examples remind us that fraud is not just bogus finance on a large scale, but quite as often the fleecing of the poor in the very staples of their existence. They are instances of that unrestrained competition which so much occupied Mrs. Gaskell in the Manchester settings of her novels. She lived there, and if Jane Austen and Birmingham form one defining moment in our subject, Mrs. Gaskell and Manchester mark another. Asa Briggs has called Manchester the “shock-city” of the 1840s, and in truth what was happening there at that time surpassed the ability of contemporaries either to control or understand. If contempt for business in Jane Austen is rooted in class, in her successors in the mid-nineteenth century contempt sharpened into animosity before the sheer dehumanising effects which industry had brought with it. Population had outpaced the capacity of housing and sanitation. Living conditions for the majority were simply ghastly. We need to remember, however, that this, though an effect of, was not primarily caused by, industry. Mrs. Gaskell was very fair about this. She does not underplay the foulness of the environment, but she does not blame the industrialists for it. She does feel deeply for the helpless plight of the workers. John Barton, as she herself stated, is the real inspiration of her first novel, not his daughter, the eponymous heroine. At the same time, like Dickens in Hard Times, she noticed the way in which trade-union agitators were quick to exploit the workers in tense industrial situations; and in her later novel, North and South, she would take the central character, John Thornton, cotton manufacturer, through a learning process by which he makes the connection between men and money.
Nevertheless, the chronicle of suffering inflicted by industry, as we have it in the nineteenth-century novel, takes us through sweated labour, class conflict, cut-throat capitalism, bankruptcies and suicides. It is often a grim story of callous individualism where dog eats dog and the devil takes the foremost. And so it continues, but the degree of artistic conviction can sometimes be in inverse proportion to the vehemence of social condemnation. Mrs. Gaskell got into trouble with Manchester manufacturers for what they considered to be her bias towards the workers in Mary Barton, but in her fair-mindedness she sought to redress the balance in North and South.
Perhaps not surprisingly, with their ready sympathy for those who are obviously suffering, creative writers can tend to be too simplistic. Thus Disraeli in Sybil has his heroine, the previously unrecognised aristocrat (note class again), resolve matters in what one can only call a fairy-tale solution at the end. In a comparable reversion of what has gone before, Gissing in Demos has his hero physically eradicate the new town and factory development and restore the landscape to its pristine pastoral condition! That sort of transformation is difficult to credit, but no more difficult than the relentless catalogue of oppression of the workmen which Robert Tressell describes in his turgid and prolix novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914). Mrs. Gaskell and Dickens, by their fair-minded portrayal of such sympathetic characters as the enlightened John Thornton and in Nicholas Nickleby the Cheeryble brothers, based on the Grants of Ramsbottom (Lancashire), manifest a credibility that is so obviously absent from both the idealised and the excessively condemnatory examples of the industrial novel.
Attitude shows by way of tone. Earnestness was a Victorian characteristic; wit was not. We have to wait until the later years of the nineteenth century to find this latter faculty deployed upon our subject, though, one has to say, without that deft scalpel-like refinement which Jane Austen always had at her command. Nevertheless, we cannot but admire the effectiveness of Shaw as he makes the glorious impudence of the munitions manufacturer Sir Andrew Undershaft annihilate the ultra-seriousness of his earnest Salvationist daughter, Major Barbara, in the play of that name. Likewise, we appreciate Wells’s exposure of Uncle Ponderevo on the one hand and his generous fun at the expense of Mr. Polly on the other, whilst Galsworthy’s persistent low-key criticism of the materialism of the Forsytes in the saga of that name provides yet another variation in satiric tone: “Nothing for nothing and remarkably little for sixpence” may be a truism, but it is also a devastating comment on the attitude of mind behind it. Satire is often in one respect at least a confession on the part of the satirist that, though he may condemn, he cannot convert. By the end of the nineteenth century modern capitalist society had become so firmly established and so complex that criticism, though it might secure the approval of readers, could never be so radical as to threaten the foundations as Manchester manufacturers had once thought it threatened them. That may be one reason why Tressell’s vehemence is so much off-key and why the wit of the writers I have mentioned seems more to the point. It speaks better to the mood of the time.
Twentieth-century writers have a different kind of contempt for business from that of their predecessors. Generally speaking, theirs is a development of attitudes first enunciated in the Victorian period and typically expressed by Matthew Arnold, what one might call, to quote his own phrase from Culture and Anarchy, the “we in Oxford” syndrome, the dislike that intellectual superiority displays for what it regards as uncultured materialism, the denigration of the “Philistines.” It is there in Forster’s contrast of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, music against money, in Howards End. It is there again in Lawrence’s hostile portraits of the manufacturers Gerald Crich (Women in Love) and Clifford Chatterley (Lady Chatterley’s Lover); and once more in T. S. Eliot’s “double whammy” in The Waste Land when he condemns the small-house agents’ clerk “on whom assurance sits / As a silk-hat on a Bradford millionaire.” Those who succeed in business are seen as ruthless go-getters, even sinister characters as in some of Conrad’s creations, destroyed spiritually by their enslavement to money; whilst of those who are entrapped in the system it is Eliot again who notices the “death-in-life” of the city workers:
Nihilistic materialism becomes even more evident as the century progresses, descending, as John Morris concludes his essay by noting, into “an unprecedented moral quagmire.” This, however, is not just a criticism of business; it is an indictment of the age. In earlier periods criticism had taken the form of protest, outraged by the failure of business to measure up to a set of basic human values. With these values gone, protest has given way to cynicism and despair. Business, like all else, is now seen as operating in the post-modern spiritual vacuum. Literature has lost its bearings and defining moments are no more.
[1. ] Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, vol. III, ch. xv.