- Economics and Ethics in the Victorian Novel
Despite the significant body of criticism dedicated to economics and the history of the novel, there is still much work to be done exploring the dense interconnections between emerging capitalism and Victorian literature. Each of the three monographs that are the subject of this review offers original and important contributions to this critical terrain. All three explore how literary texts negotiate and narrativize complex ideas about economic structures and relationships. Although their theoretical commitments vary—theological and historicist for Blumberg, structuralist for Siegel, psychoanalytic and narratological for Kreisel—each is committed to practices of historicized interpretation, predicated on the assumption that literature contains, as Kreisel puts it, textual “symptoms” of its cultural and discursive context (15). Thus close textual readings illuminate how self-sacrifice shifts in the nineteenth century from a dominant cultural value to an ambivalent, morally ambiguous one (Blumberg); how condescension begins to take on its modern connotations as a patronizing power play that asserts rather than relinquishes superiority (Siegel); and how fears about the new capitalist system are embodied in novelistic images of feminized sexuality (Kreisel).
In Victorian Sacrifice: Ethics and Economics in Mid-Century Novels, Ilana Blumberg argues that mid-century Victorians were faced with two competing ideologies—the [End Page 371] ethic of self-sacrifice enshrined through Christian theology and the ideal of self-interest promoted by the new capitalist order. The novelistic response, Blumberg argues, was a new ethical realism that incorporated self-interest and sacrifice, a negotiated truce between what Herbert Spencer would call a “proper altruism and a reasonable egoism” (2). In wide-ranging readings of Charlotte Mary Yonge, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, and Mary Augusta Ward, Blumberg explores how mid-century novelists developed various iterations of an “ethic of mutual benefit” (18), a practicable ethics that allowed authors to navigate the new economic realities of capitalism without eschewing the basic value of social generosity. For example, Adam Bede “rejects unreasonable guilt” and suggests that “measured personal benefit” is justifiable, “even in a world where others will continue to suffer” (28).
Looking back towards the first half of the century, Blumberg argues that the “sacrificial sensibility” was dominant, promoted not only by Christian sermons and tracts but also “bestselling novels and poetry, published eulogies and biographies of great men and women, accounts of war and empire, self-help manuals and housekeeping guides, treatises of political economy, the history of art, and literary criticism” (3). Victorian Sacrifice does a particularly admirable job surveying the religious context of the mid-nineteenth century. The ethics of sacrifice were evident both in the dominance of Atonement theology—the emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice to save humanity from their sins—and the pervasive, even ubiquitous, emphasis on personal sacrifice in imitation of Christ. As Blumberg makes a point of noting, even nonbelievers of the period were immersed in Christian ideology and often accepted the Christian value of sacrifice. She reads the Victorian ideology of duty, both Christian and secularized, as an extension of the sacrificial ideal, and describes how many of the new humanists adopted a “renunciatory imperative” (9) that read any taint of egoism as fundamentally incompatible with the social ethic of altruism.
Blumberg’s compelling thesis is that novelists of the 1850s and 1860s, influenced by mid-century prosperity and the discourses of political economy, “sought to reconstruct the notion of costly, self-punishing sacrifice by reconceiving the basic social unit as communal, rather than individual” (11). The resulting ethical models offered an alternative to unyielding and unattainable “maximalist altruism” by emphasizing the collective good—“constructive for others, constructive for self” (12). What is most striking about Victorian Sacrifice is that the six individual chapters each offer rich and...