Front Page Titles (by Subject) The High Victorian Period (1850-1900): The Worship of Mammon ANGUS EASSON University of Salford - The Representation of Business in English Literature
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The High Victorian Period (1850-1900): “The Worship of Mammon” ANGUS EASSON University of Salford - 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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The High Victorian Period (1850-1900): “The Worship of Mammon”
Perhaps a clever man would find it worth his while to write a book on the romance of trade.
—[Henry Morley], “Patent Wrongs,” Household Words, VII (7 May 1853), 229.
This essay deals with the High Victorian age. Even when authors of this period set their work back in time, as Dickens (1812-1870), for example, commonly does, his Little Dorrit of 1857 being set thirty years before, they yet continuously write about the present. Dickens’s financier Merdle is not a businessman of the 1820s but one for the 1850s, modelled on a swindling suicide of 1855. The chronological parameters are basically 1850 to 1900, though I draw in Thomas Carlyle from earlier, while George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House of 1919 offers a summation of the period, when the Great War, “a tremendous jolt,” might be the culmination and (hopefully) the apocalyptic close of the Industrial and Victorian ages. Faced with so vast a field, in business and in literature, I am only too conscious how necessarily limited this survey must be.
Nineteenth-Century Financial Institutions: Buildings and Appearance
Perhaps we should begin with the nineteenth-century financial institutions. What goes on in banks? How do insurance companies work? They impress by their buildings, even if many have suffered change of use: banking halls have now become café bars and the great Manchester Refuge Assurance building (1891-1912) is the Palace Hotel. Such evidence of conspicuous consumption was meant to proclaim in bricks and mortar, and in marble and mahogany, the solidity of these institutions and the profits generated by them. To read the Victorian writers is often to find representations of banks and of the outer display, not so often information in detail of financial processes. The display and the consequences of both success and failure are of greater interest. In Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857), Merdle, the great financier and yet greater swindler, the man whose name is the name of the age, has married a stately widow, with a splendid bosom which has vied with the snows of Canada and not come off worse in point of comparison of either whiteness or cold. Mrs. Merdle, the Bosom, does very well to display the jewels, to host the dinner parties and salons, that assure people of Merdle’s security, just as he and his bank in the City become an object of veneration:
the carriage, and the ride into the City; and the people who looked at them; and the hats that flew off grey heads; and the general bowing and crouching before this wonderful mortal, the like of which prostration of spirit was not to be seen . . . in Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s Cathedral put together, on any Sunday. [II.xvi.591]1
The worship of Merdle, a worship of Mammon in the modern age, is all part of Dickens’s satirical purpose, just as the obscurity of Merdle’s financial activities is deliberate too. Dickens based Merdle upon a real-life figure, John Sadleir, the Irish banker and railway promoter, who committed suicide on Hampstead Heath in 1855. But Merdle is given none of the particularity of Sadleir’s earlier career, because Dickens’s purpose is to show not a swindler’s progress, but Merdle as a kind of black hole which sucks money in, only for it to vanish like anti-matter. Merdle has no enjoyment from his scheming—no appetite for food, drink, horses, clothes, sensuality: he is a darkly inane figure, part of a mysterious process of acquiring and dissipating money, whom Dickens deliberately shows as mysterious.2
Yet such representations by Dickens and others do not necessarily spring from ignorance. Dickens himself in the 1840s had struggled to secure the financial backing to launch a newspaper, the Daily News; while in Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) knew many millowners, not only as members of her husband’s Unitarian congregation but as manufacturers to whose premises she regularly took visitors, just as she knew and conducted visitors to see James Nasmyth’s engineering works at Patricroft. Yet in reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), it is difficult to identify the business of Mr. Bradshaw, the most influential member of a Nonconformist congregation. He seems to have a factory or mill, and his partner is necessarily absent on the Continent, especially Germany, for weeks and even months at a time. More important to the novel than the Bradshaw product is the fact of the business, conducted with rigour but justice by Bradshaw, and his willingness to undertake financial business for others: he has invested money for the chapel minister, Mr. Benson, holds the certificates, and pays out the interest. It is upon Bradshaw’s business and religious principles and upon the criminal opportunities given his son by shares the firm holds that a crucial plot element turns, rather than upon the need to know whether he produces yarn or cloth and what the production process is.
That commercial and financial processes could indeed be the stuff of romance, giving pleasure through the imaginative faculty, Thomas Macaulay shows in his History of England (1848-1861), describing the founding of the Bank of England (ch. 20), the origin and nature of the National Debt (ch. 19), and the restoration of the currency (chs. 21 and 22). The misery resulting from the corrupt coinage, Macaulay declared to be worse than bad Kings, bad Ministers, bad Parliaments, for bad currency produced “wrangling from morning to night . . . Even men of business were often bewildered by the confusion into which all pecuniary transactions were thrown,” while under bad government still
the grocer weighed out his currants: the draper measured out his broadcloth: the hum of buyers and sellers was as loud as ever in the towns: the harvest home was celebrated as joyously as ever in the hamlets: the cream overflowed the pails of Cheshire: the apple juice foamed in the presses of Herefordshire. [III.xxi.392]
Yet if the authors do not set out to inform us in detail, they were well aware of the transactions of an industrial and a business age, more aware of business per se, indeed, than were writers in the first half of the century. People, authors among them, had money and looked for ways to invest it, not in land (though urban—often meaning slum—housing became an important investment) but in business, with railways at home and abroad an obvious opportunity from the 1830s onward. Trade recessions and losses of business confidence alternated with periods of boom and are often reflected in fictional plot turns and crises: the 1840s railway frenzy and the busts associated with George Hudson and John Sadleir; the trade stagnation of the 1830s and 1850s; the Bank Charter Act suspended in 1847, 1857, and 1866.3 The sense of industrial power actual and latent had long been recognised and was stressed still. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a Romantic by date of birth, whose main work and influence was on the Victorian period, lauded work as heroic. To Carlyle, the Industrial Age was an achievement as great as a force of Nature and greater because it was man-made and man-controlled. The trample of boots and clogs on a Manchester Monday morning was the sound of a staggering power:
Hast thou heard, with sound ears, the awakening of a Manchester, on Monday morning, at half-past five by the clock; the rushing-off of its thousand mills, like the boom of an Atlantic tide, ten-thousand times ten-thousand spools and spindles all set humming there,—it is perhaps if thou knew it well, sublime as a Niagara, or more so. [Chartism (1840), 211]
Manchester—A “Shock” City
Manchester had been a key city in the earlier stages of the Industrial Revolution, a “shock” city,4 receiving the brunt of industrialisation’s onset and a shock to the world, a place to be visited, the place of the new. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), later Prime Minister, set Manchester up in his novels as the successor to Rome and Athens. In Coningsby (1844), Disraeli’s hero, wishing to complete his education, proposes to go to Italy and Greece. But a mystic figure, Sidonia (Disraeli’s novels, often funny and theatrically effective, are full of such mysterious strangers, who, combining wisdom with all knowledge, are curiously like their author would wish himself to be), counsels him otherwise:
“I never was in the Mediterranean,” said Coningsby. “There is nothing I should like so much as to travel.”
“You are travelling,” rejoined his companion. “Every moment is travel, if understood!”
“Ah! but the Mediterranean!” exclaimed Coningsby. “What would I not give to see Athens!”
“I have seen it,” said the stranger, slightly shrugging his shoulders; “and more wonderful things. Phantoms and spectres! The Age of Ruins is past. Have you seen Manchester?” [III.i.141]5
Industry, trade, transport transformed the age: London was finance and commerce; Manchester, as the Cook and Watts Warehouse (1851; now the Britannia Hotel), with its great staircase and display floors proclaimed, was making and selling. The age was a business age and the writers were well aware of this transformation: it was the material of their fiction and they saw themselves increasingly as part of it. The processes of printing and publication were transformed by steam printing and by stereotyping, by linotype and railway distribution, by increased population and wider education. More and more authors in the later Victorian period saw themselves as professionals and became increasingly concerned about the value of their product. Professionalisation did not necessarily mean writing full time, any more than now. So Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) never gave up his day job with the Post Office, while the Brontë sisters always had the certainty of a roof over their heads at Haworth, so long as their father survived (though they had no reason to think that he would—as he did—outlive them all). The Haworth Parsonage, in turn, benefitted considerably from Charlotte Brontë’s income, with new furniture, wallpaper, carpets, and curtains from the success of Jane Eyre (1847). Again and again, authors show an awareness of the need to deal and to know how to deal in the market-place. Dickens was a shrewd businessman, his determination and acumen sharpened by disadvantageous contracts, signed in the first flush of his success, from which he escaped only with some difficulty. Once free, Dickens controlled his own work and copyright, became in the 1850s his own publisher, and effectively paid Bradbury and Evans as printers rather than publishers. He worked his copyrights in a series of editions and invested time and energy as well as money in a weekly magazine. He died in 1870 worth £93,000, so his executor and biographer John Forster estimated, and surely underestimated, since this included only two years’ purchase on the magazine and probably nothing on the copyrights.6 George Eliot (1819-1880) was equally successful, building on her experience as de facto editor of the Westminster Review, with all its hurly-burly of journalism and editorial work. In the fiction market, apart from the excellence of the product, she had her partner, George Henry Lewes, to negotiate the best price and conditions. By 1873, George Eliot had enough money invested, with other income, to enjoy £5,000 a year, and could afford to have her underwear made for her.7 In common with other Victorians, Elizabeth Gaskell had shares in Liverpool’s Catherine Dock and in the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway,8 while Charlotte Brontë, even before her literary earnings, had railway shares (which caused her some anxiety): later, Charlotte’s publisher, George Smith, put money for her into government funds. Charlotte’s marriage settlement (1854), by which she shrewdly alienated all her money from her husband, shows £1,678 in trust.9 These dealings and earnings came out of a shrewd knowledge of the market. George Eliot raised her price (her success made this possible) from £800 for Adam Bede (1859) to £2,000 for The Mill on theFloss (1860) to £7,000 for Romola (1863); Middlemarch (1872) brought in £9,000 over seven years.10 If George Eliot was a star, even Elizabeth Gaskell, who did not turn the screw so tightly, could eventually expect £600 and £1,000 for a novel.11 These facts and figures, however briefly given, stress the business awareness of writers of the period, their hard-headedness eliciting admiration. There was some shock when Anthony Trollope in his Autobiography (1875-76; published 1883) set out his mechanical production of a set number of words a day, regardless, plus a table of his earnings,12 but knowledge of business deals and operations never adversely affected the sense of Charles Dickens’s or George Eliot’s genius.
ENGLISH LITERATURE AND THE AGE OF BUSINESS
When writers came to represent business in their work, why did they do so? The first and most obvious answer, though it has to be tied in with a strong literary convention of realism, is that these writers sought to validate their work, to make it convincing to their readers, by representing their age. There were business transactions, trade deals, manufacturing contracts, and these spoke of the reality of the world when embodied in literary form. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872), its heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is constrained by things which need not have bothered an heroic spirit like St. Theresa of Avila in sixteenth-century Spain. Dorothea’s aspirations are as high as the Spanish saint’s, but she must painfully recognise the constrictions of the world against which she beats her wings in vain, just as the idealistic doctor, Lydgate, is in some measure defeated by setting up home with furniture he cannot afford and which must yet be paid for. Economics are not the sole consideration, but the realities of a world of buying and selling, of goods against cash, are part of the world that these Victorians seek to re-create within their fiction.
But the novels (and later the plays) of the period are not mere photographic reproductions of society, tempted though the novelist Harold Biffen is, in George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), by the idea of a novel which would be exactly true to life:
“What I really aim at is an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent . . . I don’t know any writer who has treated ordinary vulgar-life with fidelity and seriousness. Zola writes deliberate tragedies; his vilest figures become heroic from the place they fill in a strongly imagined drama.” [I.10.173]
The result, Biffen admits, would be “something unutterably tedious,” and the Victorians were not into that. Again and again these writers seek to dwell on what Dickens called “the romantic side of familiar things”—not simply the London fog or the money bill or the twist of thread, represented though each was in its reality, but the fog realised and then transformed to a metaphor for legal obfuscation, for pervasive disease, the money bill a trap for the usurer’s victim, the twist of thread a clue to tie together people who knew nothing of each other’s existence. Business provides opportunities of setting, plot, character, satire, analysis, prediction. Society is again and again represented as an interconnective structure, “this great web” as George Eliot called it in Middlemarch, and the transactions of business interweave and lead on. Society is seen as multi-layered and its analysis as a means to understand something immensely complex. Plot may show the interconnections: a financier who breaks or who peculates ruins not just himself and his family (paradoxically, may not ruin his family at all), ruins not just large investors, but whole swathes of individuals who have contributed their mite to his enterprises. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) it is (correctly) rumoured that the Town and County Bank will break. The elderly heroine, Miss Matty, shows her faith in the Bank by exchanging coins for the bewildered countryman’s worthless banknote, and then, her own money lost in the crash, sets herself up to sell tea and sweets. She is a comic conception (in the larger sense of “comedy”) of those at all levels of society who suffer when the financial dam bursts and its waters sweep away investor, depositor, tradesman, and the genteel middle-class. The fall-out is through the depths as well as the breadth of society. And that sense of layers and of the reactions to different kinds of business and business people leads into a major preoccupation, which is class. Business throws up questions of where a man comes from, on what sufferance he may do his business, what lines (if any) he may cross. Can a financier be a gentleman? Can a tailor? “But,” Dora Milvain asks in New Grub Street, “is an advertising agent a gentleman?” (II.22.330). If these writers analyse class, can a way be found to represent England’s social and political history and begin to construct a future?13
As already suggested, writers do not necessarily go into detail of process: that fascination is more obviously a French one, with Balzac’s financial intrigues in César Birotteau (1837) or Zola’s worlds of business that explore the traffic of laundering or prostitution or department stores (L’Assomoir (1877); Nana (1880); The Ladies’ Paradise (1883). Yet significant detail can be “read” and understood. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), a dressmaker’s workshop at the opening is detailed and our understanding of its organisation and economics essential to Ruth’s subsequent history. This is not a novel about sweated labour, yet the harsh conditions that govern a trade where the business is controlled, not by steady production, but by demand, are vividly established:
. . . more than a dozen girls still sat in the room into which Ruth entered, stitching away as if for very life, not daring to gape, or show any outward manifestation of sleepiness. They only sighed a little when Ruth told Mrs. Mason the hour of the night [two o’clock] . . . for they knew that, stay up late as they might, the work-hours of the next day must begin at eight, and their young limbs were very weary.
Mrs. Mason worked away as hard as any of them; but she was older and tougher; and, besides, the gains were hers. [I.1.7]
The girls eat standing in their breaks, so as not to spoil the materials, and Ruth finds little consolation in the thought that it will not always be as bad as tonight: “We often get to bed by ten o’clock” (I.1.11) is scarcely reassuring. Mrs. Mason herself as a business woman is not cruel, but she needs in her own financial straitness (a widow, she has six or seven children dependent on her) to be ignorant of what her apprentices do on a Sunday, otherwise fire and a meal might be expected. Ruth, who has no relatives or friends, stays in the house, but without warmth or food beyond a bun or biscuit in the workroom, separated by her status from the servant in the kitchen. With such toil and friendlessness, so carefully established, it is no surprise that Ruth responds to the companionship, then passion, of the dashing Mr. Bellingham, which leads to the crisis of “discovery” by Mrs. Mason, of dismissal, and of Bellingham taking Ruth to London and then Wales, where she is abandoned, pregnant. Details of stitching, Persian silks, matching of colours and materials, are the validation of a business that explains Ruth’s conduct and develops her story.
Dickens’s Little Dorrit: English Social Hierarchy and Business
I have referred to examples of business: finance, manufactures, dressmaking, and to the conception of society as layered by class and socially interconnected. It may be useful to consider a novel that serves to illustrate both what “business” means and how society is represented. Dickens’s Little Dorrit peculiarly exemplifies the hierarchical nature of English society, as Dickens came to conceive it. And it is intensely concerned with business that involves economic transactions, exchanges of labour and goods for other goods or services or cash. Business constantly goes on in Little Dorrit’s world. Seamstresses, dressmakers, dancing masters, horse-dealers, keepers of inns, pieshops, and lodgings, bankers, theatre directors, tobacconists, wine merchants: the novel weaves these and financial and commercial dealers into all the traffic of society. This essay is not concerned with political or social business, Parliament, for example, or the Civil Service, or the family, though causal connection or metaphor may link such activities to business, as Dickens does in Little Dorrit, representing a network of political corruption and influence; of jobbery; and of posts under government seized upon greedily for the salary and for reciprocal favours. When Merdle the financier is bought into the government interest, part of the “dowery” is a job for life for his gormless stepson, Sparkler, in the Circumlocution Office. The satire of Little Dorrit on the failure of government to do its business, to get things done, sets the word “business” resonating against “jobs” and “jobbery,” just as that satire echoed, at the time of the novel’s publication during the criminally mismanaged Crimean War, the demand of the Administrative Reform Association, constituted largely of men active in finance, shipping, and industry, for efficiency in public affairs and for the “right man in the right place.”
The greatest businessman in Little Dorrit is Merdle, the master spirit of the age, into everything good, and without whose name no one will consider a project or an enterprise. He is an MP and has a bank, among many other things. He has a wife to run the Society side, though for all his vast schemes, his excellent health (he has “the concentration of an oyster”), his display of wealth, he is yet browbeaten by his own butler, while his lips are powdered black as though with a trail of gunpowder and he seems constantly, in his nervous gesture of grasping one wrist with a hand, to be taking himself into custody. While Society woos him, cadges money, urges him to throw his political weight behind them, he is not a gentleman. His wife and stepson complain that Merdle carries his business affairs about with him, that (in his stepson Sparkler’s irreverent phrase) he “carries the Shop about, on his back rather—like Jew clothesmen with too much business” (I.xxxiii.386). Goaded by his wife’s demands that he accommodate himself to Society, Merdle retorts:
“in the name of all the infernal powers . . . who does more for Society than I do? Do you see these premises, Mrs. Merdle? Do you see this furniture, Mrs. Merdle? Do you look in the glass and see yourself, Mrs. Merdle? Do you know the cost of all this, and who it’s all provided for? And yet will you tell me that I oughtn’t to go into Society? I, who shower money upon it in this way? I, who might be almost said—to—to—to harness myself to a watering-cart full of money, and go about, saturating Society, every day of my life?” [I.xxxiii.384]
At this stage, the semitic slur suggested by Sparkler’s comparison to the Jew clothesmen is hardly directed more than subliminally at Merdle by either Sparkler or Dickens. The canard, though, is commonly enough associated with finance and is later made quite shockingly explicit in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875).
Merdle is a man from nowhere, a monstrous mushroom growth, but the old-fashioned financial House of Clennam goes back into the eighteenth century, so old-fashioned indeed that it avoids being swept up into Merdle speculation fever (an abstention that is also a plot requirement). If Merdle’s business is deliberately obscured by Dickens, to enforce the combination of the financier’s criminal swindling and his dupes’ eagerness to be cut into a “share of the action,” the House of Clennam’s business is merely obscure. It has dealt in goods, but now uses a commission-merchant for all such business. Clennam and his father have been twenty years in China, but to what end by way of trade or transaction is unknown. The House offers money facilities to those recommended by its foreign correspondents; and one of its partners goes about the institutions and coffee-houses where business is done—the Customs House, the Exchange, Garraway’s—but we are little the wiser about what goes on to make its meagre profit. Against Merdle, it is respectable but hardly thriving, running down and haunted by some secret, the very fabric of the building loosening, shifting, and in the end falling, as the business house, and the family home, and the personal structure of the Clennam family all collapse when the guilty secret of its chief partner comes out. For Mrs. Clennam, that chief partner, has a dark secret, hidden beneath the darker threatenings of a perverse Calvinism. And yet, we note, in business she is an equal partner. She may assert that as a woman she has no power, but she is partner in the firm and with her son’s withdrawal, senior partner, a reminder of the presence of women at all levels of business in the nineteenth century, even if her guilty secret reveals among other things that she has had no legal right to be a partner. Her marriage was invalid and the man known as her son is not hers at all. That supposed son, Arthur Clennam, fearful that a wrong has been perpetrated by the firm, resigns his share in the House of Clennam and seeks the means of livelihood elsewhere, investing his money with Doyce the engineer, an inventor, whose workshop produces (unspecified) engineering goods. Doyce is chaffed by his friend Meagles as a genius but no man of business, a common stereotype. Yet Doyce proves to be shrewdly businesslike, and welcomes Arthur to provide the office expertise in correspondence and book-keeping that allows him to work at the mechanical side, eventually to be summoned by a “certain barbaric Power,” which
had occasion for the services of one or two engineers, quick in invention and determined in execution: practical men, who could make the men and means their ingenuity perceived to be wanted, out of the best materials they could find at hand. [II.xxii.643]
This barbaric Power, probably Russia in the context of the 1850s, seeks to have things done, a smart hit by Dickens at England’s great discovery of How Not To Do It. Against Doyce, the engineer, the mechanical artist, Dickens places Henry Gowan, a painter, a man with a grievance, who believes his order, the nobs, owes him a living (and has failed to give him one) and resents alike its neglect and its patronage. He claims to be a businessman. Dickens was sure that the artist should be fully professional and asserted the claims of the dignity of literature. But Gowan claims that all business is a matter of selling dear what is produced cheap, and that he is no greater an imposter than anyone else; they all do it:
“Painters, writers, patriots, all the rest who have stands in the market. Give almost any man I know, ten pounds, and he will impose upon you to a corresponding extent; a thousand pounds—to a corresponding extent; ten thousand pounds—to a corresponding extent.” [I.xxvi.303]
There is nothing wrong in an artist having a head for business; what grates is Gowan’s “slight, careless, amateur way” (I.xvii.206).
Below these is a range of small financial agents. The biggest fish in this pool is Casby, “the patriarch,” his white locks and benevolent appearance disguising a voracious rack-renter. Formerly Lord Barnacle’s town-agent, Casby has bought houses as a speculation and employs his own agent, Pancks, to screw rents out of his tenants. Pancks, seen as the tyrant, not merely Casby’s tool, is one of those ambiguous figures in Dickens, who, essentially benevolent in his eccentricity, seems yet inexplicably bound to work for his dark master, to take the blame, and unable (until driven beyond all bearing) to take revenge or even simply go elsewhere. Pancks lodges at the house of Rugg, a general agent, debt collector, and money advisor. Rugg’s daughter has been shrewd enough in business to bring an action for breach of promise against the local baker and invested the damages awarded in government stock. Rugg is not averse to lending money at high interest, even when entering into a friendly conspiracy with his lodger, charging Pancks 20 percent (5 percent was a fairly standard nineteenth-century rate). Below these again come the self-employed artisans, notably Plornish the Plasterer of Bleeding Heart Yard, who finds work scarce, and whose wife is set up in business as a grocer, her neighbours determined to help the shop by patronising it:
Influenced by these noble sentiments, they had even gone out of their way to purchase little luxuries in the grocery and butter line to which they were unaccustomed; saying to one another, that if they did stretch a point, was it not for a neighbour and a friend, and for whom ought a point to be stretched if not for such? So stimulated, the business was extremely brisk, and the articles in stock went off with the greatest celerity. In short, if the Bleeding Hearts had but paid, the undertaking would have been a complete success. [II.xiii.551-52]
SOCIAL DISTINCTIONS AMONG THE PROFESSIONS
Separate from trade, yet still in some sense business, are the professions. An interestingly anomalous example in Dickens’s novel is Mrs. General, employed by Mr. Dorrit to form his daughters, to teach them correct polite behaviour. She again raises class distinctions. She insists she is not a governess, that often miserable and certainly ambiguous creature, suspended between family and servants. Mrs. General refuses to talk about contracts and salary, while making it clear that she received £300 for forming the single daughter of her previous employer and must therefore have one-third more in a family where there are two daughters: by contrast, a governess might have expected between £20 and £50 at this time. Mrs. General thus avoids losing the gentility she claims through birth and marriage (her father a clergyman, her husband military). While the daughters of gentlefolk became governesses, their status in the families where they worked was rarely that of gentility.
More clearly professional than Mrs. General, their depiction exploring the subtle shadings of class distinction and boundaries that entwine and hedge nineteenth-century business, are the barrister, known simply as Bar, and the physician, again simply so called. Dickens is entertained by Bar, as well as suspicious of him, as Dickens usually is of lawyers. Bar exploits language and gesture, playing to his audience, using facial expression to collude with or intimidate jurymen, yet he works hard, has a sense of purpose. He is admitted to Society, dines with Merdle, and is instrumental in getting Merdle and Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle (literally) together, so that a political bargain may be struck. Bar is a barrister, not an attorney or solicitor. In the law, a barrister is a gentleman, but the distinctions grow more uneasy below that level. In medicine, a surgeon might be regarded as little more than a descendant of the barber-surgeons, blood-letters, tooth-drawers, “sawbones,” mechanicians. A physician, who does not work with his hands, who directs the pharmacist,14 but does not himself dispense, is a gentleman. But the Victorians generally also admire the physician for his healing powers and a knowledge of humanity, held confidentially and acquired when, reduced by illness to helpless and pitiful individuals, people are stripped of their pretentions to honour or wealth or power. Yet the physician does not mock people in their nakedness, but seeks to cure or helps to die.
Dickens, like other writers, draws on the image of Jesus as the healer, who cured without distinction of race or position, and in Little Dorrit, a novel where Merdle is seen as the anti-Christ, people standing so the shadow of that great man may fall upon them, the character Physician becomes a shadowing counterpart of the Divine Healer, set against Merdle. Physician attends Merdle, but does not judge him. His knowledge, no matter of fact alone, allows him a survey of humanity that would be terrifying if revealed, yet is never put to improper use:
Few ways of life were hidden from Physician, and he was oftener in its darkest places than even Bishop. There were brilliant ladies about London who perfectly doted on him, my dear, as the most charming creature and the most delightful person, who would have been shocked to find themselves so close to him if they could have known on what sights those thoughtful eyes of his had rested within an hour or two, and near to whose beds, and under what roofs, his composed figure had stood . . . Many wonderful things did he see and hear, and much irreconcileable moral contradictions did he pass his life among; yet his equality of compassion was no more disturbed than the Divine Master’s of all healing was. [II.xxv.672-73]
A doctor is but one way, though an important one, in which parallels may be drawn between the world of business and the world of the gospels, parallels prompted not only by Satan’s temptation of Christ and by Matthew being summoned from the collection of taxes and by the cleansing of the Temple, but also by the constant business traffic of the parables: of talents, and vineyards, and silver pence, and stewards, and debtors, and rich men entering the kingdom of heaven.
In Little Dorrit, people’s business affairs become entangled or involved. The novel’s great metaphors are of imprisonment and of debt, combined literally in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Debt can slide into bankruptcy; the novel’s concern is to represent an insolvent society, politically, morally, and financially. Yet here too important distinctions drawn from business reality are made. Mr. Dorrit has been imprisoned for debt (probably over some government contract) for nearly a quarter of a century. His affairs are entangled, he has no idea how, and he is clearly unfitted for business, yet he was not criminal in his financial dealings. On the other hand, Merdle’s spectacular fall reveals his “complaint” as not physical illness nor “pressure,” but, quite simply, “Forgery and Robbery” (II.xxv.680). Yet Merdle is not even declared bankrupt, while his fall involves many others in his ruin. Clennam, partner to Doyce, who has invested the firm’s money with Merdle, unable to satisfy his creditors, is arrested and chooses to go also to the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. All seems lost. He becomes a scapegoat, a living object of execration now death has placed Merdle beyond reach of his victims. Yet since arrest for debt meant also that no seizure could be made of the debtor’s goods or assets, the firm and Clennam can eventually be saved by payment of the debts (Doyce the engineer returns financially successful from the barbaric Power) and the business be set running, more firmly established than ever. In a business situation, known to Dickens and accurately represented by him, to be imprisoned and one’s assets thus secured, proves an advantage.
Questions of Status and Class
The hierarchical organisation of Little Dorrit and the questions of status with regard to Merdle and to Bar and Physician touch very clearly on questions of class. But first, after this exemplification of the range and niches of business activity represented by Dickens, I want to consider more generally the way that business marks people and how writers represent and exploit those stigmata. Business, and more particularly trade, has its marks, sometimes physical and permanent, sometimes only in dress, sometimes in necessary restrictions of time: in business, dinner, the main meal of the day, is eaten at one o’clock or two, while the gentry eat at six or eight (as will financiers moving in or into society). The businessman must be in his office, while the gentry ride for airing and social intercourse in Hyde Park between two and four. Plornish the plasterer in Little Dorrit is marked by his trade, his clothes lime-whitened, and he fills a gap in the conversation by picking “a bit of lime out of his whisker, [putting] it between his lips, [and turning] it with his tongue like a sugar-plum” (I.xii.143). Even trades less manual entail marks, though some are in the eye of the beholder. At the end of George Gissing’s New Grub Street the “hero,” Jasper Milvain, recalls Marian, the woman who lives by writing and whom he has not married: “Do you know, I never could help imagining that she had ink-stains on her fingers. Heaven forbid that I should say it unkindly!” (though clearly, he does). “It was touching to me at the time, for I knew how fearfully hard she worked” (III.37.550). The facts of trade are that it takes time to master, that it is difficult to be master of more than one, and that the training and occupation have their signs, not least the very physical conformation of the body. Ruth in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel has the numbing experience of dressmaking, while in George Meredith’s Evan Harrington (1861), Evan, as someone who would master the trade of tailor, is confronted by the grim prospect “that at the root of the tree of tailoring the novitiate must sit no less than six hours a day with his legs crossed and doubled under him, cheerfully plying needle and thread” (xxxviii.397). Trade takes your time and physically alters you. H. G. Wells followed through the evolutionary implications of such physical deformity in The Time Machine (1895) with his Eloi and Morlocks, the human race splitting into the light effete race of the surface, the dark bestial race of underground.
If trade so marks a man or woman and is inseparable from the business, at what point do these signs, if not plaster splashes or ink stains or feeble physique or sallow complexion, yet the witnesses of business, fade and allow someone to pass as a gentleman, whether in appearance or in the acceptance of society? Dress may do this, markedly distinct spheres of work and leisure, or one’s habitation. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, the manufacturer Bradshaw determines to buy a country house, Eagle’s Crag, provoked by a casual remark. The town’s prospective MP, far from being impressed by Bradshaw’s production of pineapples on his table, pities those who cannot afford their own hothouse, “as if to be without a pinery were indeed a depth of pitiable destitution” (II. xxii.218). Bradshaw purchases Eagle’s Crag, exorbitantly dear though it is, first and foremost as a means of exhibiting his wealth. He also begins that progress, though, so characteristic of the increasingly well-to-do businessman, who has two houses (one for weekdays, one for weekends) and, in due course, only one from which he commutes, proof that he no longer carries the Shop with him. A progress through houses is also traced in H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1909), as Uncle Ponderevo’s growing wealth takes him from a dead-and-alive Kentish town to London digs, through small house and large Home Counties house, to the buying up of an old family’s home and the eventual building of his own. Not one house, in fact, successfully transfers Ponderevo to the inner circle of gentility, even though these later moves mark “those magnificent years that followed his passage from trade to finance” (III.1(i).187).
Again and again, authors are interested in the degrees that mark out tradesman from financier from gentleman. When does “shop” or business become removable like a suit, to be left behind in the office? Such a question lies behind the complaint of Mrs. Merdle and the observation of her son, that Merdle carries the business about with him: he might leave it behind and yet will not. Finance of course is not associated with articles produced for sale—such articles themselves usually being judged on a sliding scale: in Meredith’s Evan Harrington a distinction is made between tailoring and brewing, partly a matter of the physical constraint (the tailor stitches and keeps a shop), partly of the money generated. But finance itself may have its own brand. It is not landed property, nor is it unearned income. The financier is in all the hurly-burly of money and market transactions. The old resentments of the poor (including the impoverished gentry) and the unsuccessful may surface against the financier, especially if he falls from grace. Where do financiers come from? And what is their nature? In fiction, many of them come from nowhere, rootless men, and some at least are tainted with usury and the Jew. A comparison of Dickens’s Merdle and Trollope’s Melmotte from The Way We Live Now is instructive both in the concept of the financier as an unknown man and in the contrast of treatment.
Merdle and Melmotte: Dickens’s and Trollope’s “Financiers”
Merdle comes from nowhere. He is established in his position of affluence and influence when we meet him, accepted by Society:
Mr. Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. The weightiest of men had said to projectors, “Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?” And, the reply being in the negative, had said, “Then I won’t look at you.” [I.xxi.244]
Though Dickens based Merdle on an original, John Sadleir, “that precious rascality,” as Dickens called him,15 he does not trace Merdle’s earlier career and indeed we never learn anything about his origins, any more than we ever see him at work. He carries the “shop” about with him, but his whole reputation is built up by others, so far as the action of the novel is concerned. At Merdle’s dinner party, the guests accumulate by hundreds of thousands of pounds, one from another, the rumour of the value of his latest coup, and all the time the reader has the evidence of Merdle before him, a man without energy, of sluggish blood, overshadowed by his magnificent butler (who looking out of the window is mistaken by admiring passers-by for his master).
Anyone might see through him: as of course people do in retrospect, for that is part of Dickens’s point. A man so situated does not need delicacy or intelligence, once people believe in him. He becomes an object of worship, a figure of gold, Mammon himself or the anti-Christ in an age where signs and wonders herald the end of all things. He is a religion, whose worshippers, abject believers, are seized by a devout desire to be both cured and trampled by him, and he is a disease, which must and will run its course. London becomes, with Merdle’s death and the revelation that he is “Forgery and Robbery,” a pullulating body possessed by a putrid fever. The talk
swelled into such a roar when night came, as might have brought one to believe that a solitary watcher on the gallery above the Dome of St. Paul’s would have perceived the night air to be laden with a heavy muttering of the name of Merdle, coupled with every form of execration. [II.xxv.680]
What the reader has suspected all along becomes clear in Merdle’s sordid end. He lies in a public bath where he has cut his throat, a man who went to do the deed dancing as though possessed by devils, and now revealed with “an obtuse head, and coarse, mean, common features” (II.xxv.676). The financial Messiah is incarnate as this grossness and his dupes do not take kindly to having to say with Shakespeare’s Caliban, “what an ass I was to take this drunkard for a god.”
Merdle may be no gentleman (the butler, in resigning, makes it clear he has never taken Merdle to be such), but that he is English, native born, though never stated, is never in doubt. Trollope’s Melmotte is not only a financier who deals in dubious schemes and finally breaks, but he is also a foreigner and indeed a Jew—though just as Dickens works through what other characters say and believe about Merdle, so also Trollope uses rumour rather than authorial statement. While we can never be exactly sure about Melmotte, we can be sure enough about his background and activities, be sure enough that the rumours derive from a core truth about the man, however much each detail is falsified in repetition or highly coloured. Like Merdle, Melmotte is a great financier, though one from the first called in question by some. Like Merdle, after reaching a high point—election as MP for Westminster and the entertaining of the Emperor of China to dinner, a highly comic episode, yet memorably and irretrievably damaging to all his schemes—Melmotte commits suicide, though not suddenly, for the process is set against a financial deadline in which Trollope and the reader pursue the quarry’s twists and turnings.
Melmotte claims to be British born, but has arrived in London from France and we piece together a career that has taken in Frankfurt (where the family was Jewish) and Paris (where they all became Christian), while later he is associated with a failed assurance company now located in Vienna (I.iv.30-31; I.xi.106-7; II.liv.32-33). Where Merdle’s frauds are never suspected until the revelations sprung by his death, Melmotte is constantly shadowed by his past. Each stage of his London career is fought against an increasingly tight threat of failure to meet payment deadlines and so the imminence of ruin and flight. His greatest scheme is the South Central Pacific and Mexico Railway, an entire fiction (so far as we can grasp), but a highly profitable one. Melmotte runs his course, returned for Westminster, entertaining the Emperor of China, yet entangled in deferred payment for an estate, itself remortgaged to buy slum property in the East End. Faced with a charge of forgery and unable to get his daughter Marie to sign back the money he has, as future security, put into trust in her name, Melmotte reflects that “men would at any rate remember him” (II.lxii.113).
Trollope largely presents Melmotte externally, through his actions at the office or the Railway board meetings and through the dense web of rumours. Yet his fraudulent purpose is never in doubt, even if, as Melmotte’s end approaches, we are told the most remarkable circumstance of his career “was the fact that he came almost to believe in himself” (II.lvi.57). In distinct contrast, Merdle remains and deliberately remains always occluded, a dark mystery upon which others project their fantasies and desires. Like Melmotte, overtaken by events and defied by his daughter, who resists not only threats but beatings, he is both fraud and hero, a man who dares like Zola’s heroes, especially in contrast to the jackals that accompany him and to the contemptible gentlemen of good society. Yet for all his greatness (a dark greatness, true), Melmotte seems denigrated. On his last night, Melmotte goes down to the Commons, defiantly eats alone in the Members’ dining room, and then, having drunk too much, disgraces himself in the Chamber, toppling forwards onto the MP in front of him, though able still with some difficulty to walk out unaided. True, he is allowed a death effective in its shocking quietness. He goes to his sitting room with a bottle of brandy:
Neither of the ladies of the family came to him, nor did he speak of them. Nor was he so drunk then as to give rise to any suspicion in the mind of the servant. He was habitually left there at night, and the servant as usual went to his bed. But at nine o’clock on the following morning the maid-servant found him dead upon the floor. Drunk as he had been,—more drunk as he probably became during the night,—still he was able to deliver himself from the indignities and penalties to which the law might have subjected him by a dose of prussic acid. [II.lxxxiii.319]
Melmotte is a man who lives with danger, yet Trollope makes him guilty of an extraordinarily clumsy forgery and leaves him without expedients or ruses to defy his opponents. Trollop seems to fear making Melmotte too heroic in a world of the greedy, the feeble, and the dull, though he makes a nice point in Marylebone’s desire to erect a posthumous monument to him and there are hints that, with a pinch more luck, Melmotte might have survived and even thriven.
Melmotte was a Jew in Frankfurt and while that is not particularly dwelt upon even by his enemies, the smear of “Jew” bursts shockingly into Trollope’s narrative. Dickens’s references to Jews in Little Dorrit are observational: a minor law officer is a Jew; Sparkler compares Merdle in carrying the “shop” around with him to a Jewish second-hand clothes-man. When Georgiana Longstaffe in Trollope’s novel, desperate for a husband, proposes to accept Mr. Brehgert, the objections are not only that he is in his fifties, a widower with two children, and a tradesman (“a banker,” Brehgert mildly observes), but and above all that he is a Jew. In her father’s objections, we may wonder how far we hear the objection of caste or of the age or even of Trollope himself: “A Jew! an old fat Jew! Heavens and earth! that it should be possible that you should think of it! . . . It will kill [your mother]. It will simply kill here” (II.lxv.143). Mrs. Longstaffe’s comment that there is surely something in the Bible against it, is some assurance on Trollope’s own view, and Mr. Brehgert’s sensible letter to Georgiana and her foolish reply by which she effectively breaks off the engagement (II.lxxix.269-73, 276-77), sufficient to make clear that the marriage would have failed on her side. But the energy of execration disturbs not merely because of our reading now of such hatred: its vehemence lies too with a hatred that surfaces later in Sir Clifford Chatterley’s hysterical denunciation of Mellors as working class and, more relevantly here, with the vivid contempt for trade and for tailoring in particular of Meredith’s Evan Harrington.
MONEY, RACE, CLASS AND MORALITY
Brehgert, answering Mr. Longstaffe’s objections to his marrying Georgiana, stresses how Longstaffe has hardly kept pace with the movements of the age on Jews, while as for the idea that being in trade is an objection, “my business is that of a banker; and I can hardly conceive it to be possible that any gentleman in England should object to his daughter marrying a banker, simply because the man is a banker” (II.lxxix.270). There is a perspective here on money: a banker is respectable, equal to the daughter of a gentleman, and again and again these writers offer us perspectives on money. Dickens’s Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son (1848) had asked: What is money? What can it do? And told it can do anything, asks why, then, it did not save his mother? The challenge to money is perhaps naturally a common response, deriving from the Christian tradition of it as the root of all evil. It did not need R. H. Tawney, though, to point to Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) for a strong link between the Protestant ethic and commercial success to be noted and (sometimes) approved. Still, the sense in the earlier part of the period is strong that money may be bad as well as good, according to its source, and that it can be put to base use as well as virtuous. Money in any quantity, indeed, is seen as unnecessary. The wealth which Mr. Dorrit inherits in Little Dorrit vanishes (through Merdle) as though it had been fairy gold, leaving nothing achieved by its means, and the codicil of a will, that would benefit Amy, Little Dorrit herself, is burnt at her request by Arthur Clennam, without him knowing what it is, lest it be a barrier between them in happiness. They marry and pass down into the crowded street, blessed and happy in each other. Dickens is not such a fool as to think they can live literally without money—Clennam’s partnership with Doyce is being remarkably successful—but the business of this world (to twist the word “business” a little) is not with inherited money or money unearned.
In contrast, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now offers, though without approving, an American perspective on money. Hamilton K. Fisker is the moving force behind the South Central Pacific and Mexico Railway. Far from being downhearted at Melmotte’s suicide, he seeks to buy up every share he can, coming to England specially for the purpose:
“These shares are at a’most nothing now in London. I’ll buy every share in the market. I wired for as many as I dar’d, so as not to spoil our own game, and I’ll make a clean sweep of every one of them. Bu’st up! I’m sorry for [Melmotte] because I thought him a biggish man;—but what he’s done’ll just be the making of us over there.” [II.xcii.394]
Fisker is true to his business philosophy, early expressed, that “there’s more to be got out of the smash up of such an affair as this [the railway], if it should smash up, than could be made by years of hard work out of such fortunes as yours and mine in the regular way of trade” (I.x.85). Even so, Trollope allows there to be more weight in one word of Melmotte than a whole speech by Fisker. Merdle’s railway would have crashed with everything else; Melmotte’s, or rather America’s, survives in what Trollope identifies as a new “money age”—where financial trading is not to promote a product but to promote the generation of money that sticks to those who know a good thing and how to manipulate it; fortunes are to be made, not by the railway, but by floating railway shares (I.x.89-90). This new age is enforced by Mrs. Hurtle, who comes to England hoping to marry the novel’s romantic hero, Paul Montague. She is a new kind of woman in England: she has killed a man and is divorced from her husband (in one State at least). She believes in dollars and success, not tradition. To her, it would be better to see Melmotte than “your Queen”: what grandeur, what power. Yes, answers Paul, if Melmotte came by it honestly. Such a man, Mrs. Hurtle insists, rises above honesty; this man with a scratch of the pen can send out or call in millions of dollars (I.xxvi.245-46). Trollope clearly delights in shocking his readers about business and morality, and in some degree challenges their assumptions, though Melmotte’s situation is somewhat rockier than Mrs. Hurtle believes. Still, Mrs. Hurtle’s is the voice of new ways, however unwelcome, and indeed Mrs. Hurtle comes out well in her dealings with most people. In the end, though, she packs back to America, in the company significantly of Melmotte’s widow and daughter: the widow marries Melmotte’s confidential clerk and the daughter marries Fisker—once she is clear about married women’s property in California. All these ladies are determined never to revisit England (II.xcviii.457), yet the Americanisation of business has been deferred rather than defeated.
If money is not tied in with Christian morality, nor to be legitimately gained by manipulating shares (both views are strongly represented within the period), then money may be a force for political and class transformations, once outdated and sentimental principles are jettisoned. The obvious advocate of this position is George Bernard Shaw. To him, money is powerful; without it, in society as presently constituted, there can be no reform or change. Here is a new master-worker relationship, where the benevolent employer provides first for the body, not the soul. In Major Barbara (1905), Andrew Undershaft, the munitions manufacturer, is set against his daughter Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army. The struggle that half a century before would have been between Barbara and Andrew for her father’s soul, now is a struggle, often apparently effortless on the part of the witty Undershaft, for Barbara’s enlightenment. She must understand that the Salvation Army (to which Shaw is not, as such, hostile) only patches over symptoms, cannot reach the root problem. Bread and tea exchanged for a confession and fake conversion is not transforming the world, as Barbara herself recognises when she rejoices that “we have got rid of the bribe of bread.” Barbara experiences a crisis when the Army accepts a donation from Bodger’s Whiskey, and again when she visits her father’s factory, where there are fair wages and welfare provision: it is Utopian, even millennial, in its rational organisation and future prospects. Shaw is well aware of the paradoxes of his presentation. Undershaft is a dealer in death, yet his money goes to the welfare of his workers—Shaw could easily have made the proposal more palatable and less interesting, if Undershaft were a spinner or weaver or an ironfounder. For Undershaft the body, not the soul nor Carlyle’s divine spark, must be provided for first.
“Captains of Industry”: The Modern Heroes
Undershaft is a modern hero and in 1905 still recognisable as the hero redefined in the 1830s and 1840s by Thomas Carlyle, for whom the true benefactor was not a king or warrior, but he “who first hammered out for himself an iron spade” (Carlyle, p. 53). Carlyle coined the term “Captains of Industry” to establish a new kind of warrior class.16 Business itself became an heroic endeavour, though in a different key from that struck by Mrs. Hurtle. In Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), the ironmaster Rouncewell (whose mother is housekeeper at Chesney Wold, the home of the old landed interests) has great power in transforming society. He names his son Watt, after James Watt, the heroic engineer, though the ear of reaction hears it as an ominous repetition of the rebel Wat Tyler. Dickens sees Rouncewell as symptomatic of the new age, and a welcome symptom. Sir Leicester Dedlock is a gentleman in the best sense, but he is the best of an older way that, seized by paralysis, must now pass with all the stifling relicts of a worn-out age. The horror at the idea that Rouncewell will stand for Parliament was manifestly ridiculous in 1853, but underlines the emergence of a new class that sought to challenge an older landowning caste.
Rouncewell, to the astonishment of some, has the manners of a gentleman, and while fun could be made of the rudeness of northern magnates, the figure of John Thornton in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) exemplifies Carlyle’s new industrial captain and new hero who seeks to cultivate himself and provide for his workforce. Thornton’s father failed in business and Thornton, supported by his indomitable mother, paid off his father’s debts and established himself as a millowner in Milton Northern (a lightly disguised Manchester). Thornton lives on the premises: his house is part of the mill complex and he is proud of that fact. He is not a wealthy man, as Milton men go, though well-to-do. Others have realised their wealth and turned it into land, while “his was all floating capital, engaged in his trade” (II.ii.212). This is one reason he needs to bring in scab labour (“blacklegs”) when the men go on strike, since otherwise he will break. It is only the financial aid given him by Margaret Hale, a southerner settled in Milton, that preserves him at a time of recession. Thornton is the north to Margaret’s south, his world observed shrewdly by Margaret. These northern men are powerful through wealth and not afraid. Margaret likes that, though she urges Thornton, who is more thoughtful and more cultivated than most, that such power demands responsibility as well as ostentation, social acceptance as well as individualism. Thornton, while highly critical of some millowners, speaks for this new strength of the industrial north, in ways that echo Carlyle on racial characteristics and echo too those businessmen who believed they should not be put to unnecessary expense by law to curb their smoke or fence their machinery:
“. . . I belong to Teutonic blood . . . we do not look upon life as a time for enjoyment, but as a time for action and exertion. Our glory and our beauty arise out of our inward strength, which makes us victorious over material resistance, and over greater difficulties still. We are Teutonic up here . . . in another way. We hate to have laws made for us at a distance. We wish people would allow us to right ourselves, instead of continually meddling . . . We stand up for self-government, and oppose centralisation.” [II.xv.334]
At the end of the period, Shaw’s Undershaft is a very different figure: a southerner, established in the manufacturing process, with (apparently) no labour problems. But he too is a benevolent paternalist in the workplace, providing housing and welfare, a “superman” still recognisably Carlyle’s heroic Captain of Industry, though Shaw has very different purposes from Gaskell’s conciliatory politics. Like Thornton, Undershaft is a new man, a point stressed by the firm of Undershaft never passing by inheritance but only to an orphan (as its founder had been), who must make his own way, from obscurity, without ancestors. If certain likenesses link Thornton and Undershaft, both are in marked distinction to H. G. Wells’s Uncle Ponderevo in Tono-Bungay, though he too is a man without origins or ancestry. But Ponderevo is not a Captain of Industry, in any sense understood by Carlyle. He is an exploiter of advertising, of “American” methods in business, in a field, patent medicines, that prompted the detailed and scathing report of the Patent Medicines Committee in August 1914. What Ponderevo’s nephew, the narrator of Tono-Bungay, celebrates is this new emphasis on selling, even while he is charting a history of England and of class. Young Ponderevo exposes the sham of the huckster and the sham of the gentleman.
SOCIAL CLIMBING, MONEY, COMMERCE AND TRADE
The “old proverb” says, “It takes three generations to make a gentleman,”17 and most of these writers are keenly aware of social movement, usually though not invariably upward, and aware too of the commercial origins in fact (which they transfer to fiction) of many upper-class families. In Meredith’s Evan Harrington, the Beckley estate, owned by Mrs. Bonner, was bought by her father, a grocer (XV.158); the Jocelyns are noble, but they are Bonners on their mother’s side and look eagerly to the Bonner inheritance. Yet this very fact, of money buying its way, becoming respectable in the third or even second generation, meant that people were acutely alive to distinctions and niceties, which sometimes astonish us and undoubtedly astonished some of their contemporaries.
Evan Harrington is about attitudes to business rather than about business itself. Evan himself determines, on the death of his father Melchisedec Harrington, the “Magnificent Mel,” a tailor who liked mixing with the gentry, going riding, and the rest, that he must become a tailor himself to pay off his father’s debts. The novel’s course shows how Evan avoids that fate, not by his own default, but by the machinations of his sister, the Countess, married to a Portuguese nobleman, who fights a series of “campaigns” designed to conceal the trade origins of herself and her two sisters, and to secure the hand of Rose Jocelyn for Evan. Much of the action takes place at Beckley, to which the Countess has contrived invitations for herself and Evan.
The comic possibilities of embarrassment and eventual discovery are fully exploited by Meredith, if the premise is accepted that being a tailor is so awful (part of this springs from the exaggerated notions of the Countess) and that exposure could be so long avoided. As “Jew” was the fatal word in The Way We Live Now when Brehgert offered marriage to Georgiana, so “snips” is the ignominious slur here. The disgust generated by the brand, not just of trade but of physical degradation (sitting cross-legged to work), is akin to that produced by “Jew” in Trollope, and extraordinary for the sense of shame it generates. It is true that the Jocelyn family may rightly feel a deception is being practised upon them, but even before Evan’s origins are known, “snips” is a topic of ridicule and contempt. Rose herself, told the truth by Evan (despite his sister purloining from a servant Evan’s letter of revelation), still is sickened by the idea and has to gaze on her beloved for reassurance. Even to herself, she cannot name what Evan is:
[S]he thought she had completely conquered whatever could rise against him. But when Juliana Bonner told her that day that Evan was not only the son of the thing, but the thing himself, and that his name could be seen any day in Lymport, and that he had come from the shop to Beckley, poor Rosey had a sick feeling that almost sank her. . . . Her eyes had to feed on Evan, she had to taste some of the luxury of love, before she could gain composure. [xxvii.286]
Meredith himself, ready to laugh at the English readiness to toady to those who are above trade (evidence, he notes, of how wrong Napoleon was to call us a nation of shopkeepers [ii.10], ready to laugh at the Countess (while admiring her campaigning skills), and to laugh at gentry whose wealth is from trade, seems in the end to denigrate business. The “Great Mel” is laughed at but his adventures admired; the Countess if defeated retires in reasonable order to Italy; Evan inherits Beckley, even if he gives it away again. Meredith, in this comedy of embarrassment, insists that Evan should end, not stitching at his bench nor even running his shop, but married to Rose and in the first stages of the diplomatic service.
H. G. Wells on Class in English Society
More instructive on class, though equally convinced of its being deeply (and perniciously) embedded in the history and structure of English society, is H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay. Tono-Bungay itself, the business project, is a patent medicine, a cocktail of Uncle Ponderevo’s contriving, containing two tonics (one with a marked effect on the kidneys), alcohol, and a secret ingredient (II.2.i.115). Ponderevo’s nephew, George, is clear about this concoction, when invited to come into the business: it’s “a damned swindle.” Ponderevo enters his protest:
“I’d like to know what sort of trading isn’t a swindle in its way. Everyone who does a large advertised trade is selling something common on the strength of saying it’s uncommon. Look at Chickson—they made him a baronet. Look at Lord Radmore, who did it on lying about the alkali in soap! . . . It’s the modern way! . . . [If not, among] other things, all our people would be out of work. Unemployed! I grant you Tono-Bungay may be—not quite so good a find for the world as Peruvian bark, but the point is, George—it makes trade!” [II.2(ii).118-19]
This is Mrs. Hurtle’s “American” world of business, though some Americans felt they could learn from the British example.18 Once George agrees to join his uncle in the project, already started, with its assembly line and its advertising, he manages the mechanics of production and sales: “It sounds wild, I know, but I believe I was the first man in the city of London to pack patent medicines through the side of the packing case, to discover there was a better way in than by the lid” (II.3.i.138). Ponderevo’s advertisements, successful and unsuccessful, are laid out delightedly by Wells, including three “preliminary sketches” by this “Napoleon of domestic conveniences” (I.l.i.4). The company flotation produces a subscription of £150,000; soon Ponderevo has £2 million of property and a controlling influence near £30 million. The iridescent bubble expands and inevitably, with unrealisable securities in hand, bursts (though Tono-Bungay itself continues to “this day” to sell regularly). Ponderevo flees with George to France (by flying machine), where he dies: he cannot outlive the enterprise that intoxicated him.
Wells’s Analysis of the History and Class System of England
But when he invokes “this old British system” (III.2(viii).236), so stable and yet able to accommodate new men, Ponderevo touches on Wells’s own analysis not only of business methods and speculative finance, but also, as Ponderevo’s collapse leaves the building of his last home, Crest Hill, abandoned and already crumbling in its gerry-built splendour, on his analysis of the history of England. This began with Bladesover House, where George lived “below stairs,” his mother being the housekeeper, representative of that old world of landed gentry being taken over by the Chicksons and the Radmores, being taken over by the Ponderevos. The houses in which the Ponderevos live mark their social rise and aspirations. Yet, just as the baize door at Bladesover marked the boundary of below stairs and above stairs (through which George made secret raids upon the treasures hidden in the library), so also these houses again and again show Ponderevo up against the impermeable membrane of a rigid class system. For Wells this barrier must be broken, not for Ponderevo especially but for everyone, and the system itself destroyed.
Yet his regard for what England means also gives us the novel’s closing bravura run down the Thames from Hammersmith to the open sea: “To run down the Thames so is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end” (IV.3(ii).348). Business in Tono-Bungay leads to a vision that suggests, from the Socialist Wells, an end to England, even though Wells, like other great Socialists, like George Orwell, for example, is intensely bound up with Englishness.19
Out to the open we go, to windy freedom and trackless ways. Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old pride and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass—pass. The river passes—London passes, England passes. [IV.3(ii).352]
It is an elegy and an epitaph for the old world. For the Utopian Wells there is an unknown yet vibrant future ahead, an old world to be discarded, a new world to be found. The novel does not end on “England passes,” though its saying is deeply felt. It ends, rather, on a vision of the future, challenging yet optimistic:
I have come to see myself from the outside, my country from the outside—without illusions. We make and pass.
We are all things that make and pass, striving upon a hidden mission, out to the open sea. [IV.3(iv).353]
That was a vision of 1909. By 1919 some had grown wiser or wearier. Wells’s vision is essentially apocalyptic, as so much of his writing is. It sees that revelation of the end or intimations of it, whether in Wars of the Worlds or in the Time Machine’s dying sun low over a dark sea where crab-like creatures scuttle. Such apocalyptic ideas had played already in Dickens’s world of Little Dorrit, with Merdle as anti-Christ and the collapse of the House of Clennam in rubble an image of the end of all things. George Bernard Shaw, in Heartbreak House, a work that attempted, foolhardily but with a failure that outdoes success, to encapsulate the meaning of the past century and to view its end, envisaged a world drifting, frivolous, that invites destruction and yet escapes it, perhaps because there is the future hope of new love and new life, perhaps just because it is England. At the end of Heartbreak House, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” its inhabitants frenziedly turn on all the lights and tear down the curtains as the Zeppelins pass overhead on their night raid. There is a frantic desire for excitement, for an epic immolation. The bomb, though, hits the cave with the dynamite and blows up Boss Mangan and the burglar, the play’s only two “practical men of business.” The war, the culmination of a century’s capitalism and national competition, of blind power and mechanical ingenuity, the end of political idealism, has promised the end of all things. Yet these people (except the “practical men of business”) survive; the raid passes on. The play sums up a whole era of business and its representation by a conclusion in which nothing quite is concluded. England survives; perhaps tomorrow (as always) it will perish:
But what a glorious experience! I hope they’ll come again tomorrow night.
ellie [radiant at the prospect]:
Oh, I hope so. [p. 160]
[1. ] All references are by book or volume (where appropriate), chapter, and page to the edition given in the Bibliography.
[2. ] For information about banking or financial procedures see Bagehot or (with reference to the literature) Russell.
[3. ] See Horsman, 150; Russell, 140-41.
[4. ] Briggs, 56 and ch. 3, “Manchester: Symbol of an Age.”
[5. ] See also the opening of bk. IV: “rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens”; and Disraeli’s less happy claims for Birkenhead’s superiority over Damascus: Tancred (1847), V.v.378-79.
[6. ] Forster, 860 (Appendix: Dickens’s Will). What £93,000 would be worth in today’s terms is of course highly problematical: see Patten, particularly the Introduction (p. 3), and the whole work for an excellent account of Dickens as businessman.
[7. ] Haight, 458-59; investments included “stocks and bonds of railways and public utilities, many of them American” (p. 455).
[8. ]The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, 690.
[9. ] E. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 232, 567 (note to p. 448).
[10. ] Figures from Haight. They take no account of the particular arrangements that brought the rights back to the author after a fixed term: for example with Adam Bede it was a copyright sold for four years; with Romola, for ten. Further money came from American publication, translations, and continental publication in English.
[11. ] For details of Gaskell’s payments, see Easson, ed., Elizabeth Gaskell: The Critical Heritage, 4-13.
[12. ] XX.316-17; he reckoned just under £69,000 between 1847 and 1879.
[13. ] And not just England: class is a key issue in America too. See, for example, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) in The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920).
[14. ] The dispensing of drugs was an issue through much of the nineteenth century (it plays a key part in Lydgate’s eventual disaster in George Eliot’s Middlemarch), as was the status of the surgeon. Pharmacists rose as a distinct trading class, while surgeons, with the development of medical research and teaching, could increasingly claim to be gentlemen.
[15. ] Russell discusses Dickens’s and Trollope’s use of originals for Merdle and Melmotte.
[16. ] See further Melada (1970).
[17. ] Melada (1970), 13, quoting James Fenimore Cooper.
[18. ] In Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903), Chad, the scion of a successful manufacturer of a never-identified product, is struck by advertising in London: “Advertising scientifically worked presented itself thus as the great new force: ‘It really does the thing, you know’ ” (XII.iv.363).
[19. ] That Vaughan Williams based a movement of his London Symphony on Wells’s passage reinforces the Englishness.