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Real Money and Romanticism (review)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 214-216 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0005

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Reviewed by
Real Money and Romanticism by Matthew Rowlinson; pp. 249. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. $79.00 cloth.

In Real Money and Romanticism, Matthew Rowlinson explores the consequences of an intriguing claim: that it was surprisingly difficult for early nineteenth-century authors to know whether they had been paid for their work. Walter Scott, for example, received advances for his novels in bills of exchange; by using these bills in his own transactions, he could (and did, when his publisher went bankrupt) render himself liable for his publisher's payments. Keats received payment from his publishers in terms that made it unclear whether these payments were gifts, loans, or advances. And what exactly authors were paid for was equally unclear: changes in copyright law in the late eighteenth [End Page 214] century gave rise to the idea of intellectual property, causing authors to reflect on how the value of literary labour differs from the value of printed pages. Reading Scott, Keats, and Dickens, Rowlinson contends that these uncertainties in literary value produce an "allegory" or "reflection" of money or commodity form. Using Marx as his primary framework—along with Freud, Lacan, Benjamin, and gift theory—Rowlinson argues that for both literary labour and money, value emerges as a "remainder" that can be either wasteful or sublime. His fascinating readings find this "remainder" in authors' depictions of "curiosities," relics of a past anachronistically surviving into a present that renders their original use value irrelevant.

Rowlinson's first two chapters provide theoretical and historical introductions. In chapter 1, Rowlinson contests anthropological and economic accounts depicting modern money as a system of rational equivalency that replaces archaic forms of symbolic exchange. Instead, he contends that "there is no money without a residual symbolic element" (10). He turns to Lacan to explore the opposition between symbolic exchange and exchange of equivalents, and to theorize the either wasteful or sublime remainder left from the disjunction between them. The second chapter usefully delineates the historical conditions that rendered monetary value sublimely indeterminate in early nineteenth-century Britain. Rowlinson notes that coins and bills of exchange were traded across national boundaries and that multiple factors (such as a coin's degree of wear, the relative quantities of coins and paper money in circulation, a bill of exchange's date and place of redemption, or the reputation of a bill's signatories) would raise or lower their monetary value. Changes in monetary policy—moving to inconvertible currency during the economic crisis of the war years and then enacting a gold standard in 1817—also demonstrate that no single form of money or currency embodied value. Instead, "the pound as an abstraction was constituted precisely by its capacity to assume these heterogeneous forms, since its existence as a national currency was determined by the mediations between them" (54).

The monetary history that Rowlinson so ably portrays is especially illuminating in reading the career and the novels of Walter Scott. Rowlinson demonstrates that because Scott was paid in bills of exchange drawn on his publisher, publishing his novels anonymously allowed him to conceal his personal degree of indebtedness and therefore obtain greater value for his bills. By receiving his advances as bills of exchange, Scott in effect borrowed from his publisher on the capital of the novel he was writing. Since the bill of exchange rendered any signatory liable for uncollected debts, Scott "wrote his novels to make sure that the bills he had signed were retired. Scott wrote, in short, to withdraw his signature from circulation" (64).

Rowlinson's suggestion that anachronism provides a means for authors to reflect on literary value is equally original and compelling. Scott and Dickens, he argues, allegorize monetary relations in "curiosities," like the dubiously historic objects that Scott's antiquary collects or the (putatively for sale but [End Page 215] never purchased) items in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. Because the curiosity has outlived its use, its value "hovers between worthlessness and sublimity"(77). In thematizing such "remainders" of past times, Rowlinson suggests, The Antiquary presents an allegory both of capital and of "its own value in the process of circulation" (95). In chapter 4, Rowlinson demonstrates that...