"Who Acts John Bull?": Speculating on English National Character and Modern Morality
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"Who Acts John Bull?": Speculating on English National Character and Modern Morality Jennifer?. Wagner-Juiwlor According to Marc Shell, Rousseau can be credited with first intuiting the deep connection between money and fiction, or the "internalization of economic representation into a narrative" {Economy of Uterature 124). Contemporary scholars of British nineteenth-century fiction have elaborated on the theory of narration developed from this intuition, proving incontestably that the nature of the novel is inseparable from the development of British dependence upon credit. The work of Deidre Lynch, John Vernon, Norman N. Feltes, Patrick Brantlinger and, most recendy, Richard D. Mallen, revolve around the same central crux: that the "horror and guilt of fiction, like that of money, is that it is a counterfeit, a confidence game, making something out of nothing at someone else's expense. The danger, that is, is that there is nothing to trust backing it up" (Schleifer xii-xiii). The connection between trust, money, and what Lynch has so usefully named the "economy of character" is not, however, as Lynch's full and intricate reading of that term implies, reserved only for the novel, which has been the nearly exclusive subject of this sort of analysis. Rather, as only a rare few, such as Lynch and Brantlinger, have pointed out, the uneasiness about the nature and social impact of money — and especially credit money — that haunts nineteenth-century fiction is also the obsessive subject of many mid-century plays. In this essay, I wish to explore several mid-Victorian dramas that register this society's continuing ambivalence about credit, particularly 64volume 29 number 2 "Who Acts John Bull?" as it relates to private debt, by metaphorizing the behavior of speculators and other indebted persons as theatricality. A play's own reliance on imposturing, and thus on the ambiguity of false and true behavior and identity, becomes the figurai field on which the contestation of true versus false character, of honorable versus dishonorable behavior and motivations, are fought. The several plays I will consider, including Bulwer-Lytton's Money (1840), Tom Taylor's The Ticket-of Uave Man (1863), and George Henry Lewes's The Game of Speculation (1851), are just a few from this period that attempt to reconceptualize the problem of character in light of a perceived undermining of ethical behavior in Victorian England's culture of pervasive speculation.1 In none of these plays is this attempt fully successful, except insofar as they ironize the very concept of character. But this is precisely their interest: taken together, they pose a precociously modern conception of character as not only unknowable, but as fundamentally theatrical. In helping to educate their audience in negotiating relationships with (or perhaps sometimes as members of) the new commercial class, these plays participate in the gradual redefinition of the terms of character, not, now, in terms of "essences" or core values that transparently (in a mythical way) adhered to one's class — but in terms of (iTjlegibility, (un)knowability, appearances. Furthermore, this renegotiation of character contributes to a skeptical interrogation of a specifically English "national character," which also undergoes challenge in the emergent modernity of Victorian England's commercial culture. With a concluding look at George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, we can see how this set of plays searches for the roots of modern honor, only to set the stage for a distinctly modern ironizing of character that leads to a distinctly modern notion of the "ideal" Englishman. "In the long and involved history of political economy there is one word that stands out beyond all others as a triumph of imposture. That word is Credit" —Freeman Tilden2 Victorian Review (2003)65 J. Wagner-Lawlor During the mid-Victorian period, according to historians, money was taken, by national leaders, to be reliable, British credit and British currency alike (up until the onset of depression in 1 873) understood to be "rock-solid." Yet there remained a consistent concern throughout the century, in various kinds of texts, both literary and journalistic, about debt. It was a concern born from England's increasing dependence on credit from the early decades of the eighteenth century on. For instance, Lynch observes that the proliferation...