- Romances of Free Trade: British Literature, Laissez-Faire, and the Global Nineteenth Century by Ayse Celikkol
At First glance, the title of Ayse Celikkol’s Romances of Free Trade seems a contradiction in terms. Readers, perhaps channelling the spirit of Hard Times’s Mr. Gradgrind, may question free trade’s ability to produce (let alone sustain) romance. Yet, through the unlikely partnering of two distinct genres—political economy and romance fiction—Celikkol offers a fresh way to historicize globalization. Charting the transition from protectionism to free trade in well-known nineteenth-century literature by Walter Scott, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens, as well as the lesser-known works of Frederick Marryat and early Victorian dramatists, Romances of Free Trade makes a compelling argument about how free trade was imagined within and across genres. According to Celikkol, as Britain moved from a system of protectionism to one of free trade, and as commerce and capital increasingly crossed borders, literature closely examined the “tension between circulation and enclosure” as well as the effects of free trade on the individual subject and the nation (4). Although her argument is largely one about form—the ways in which different genres responded to a common set of phenomena and discourses—Celikkol also calls generic boundaries into question. She treats romance not as an “autonomous genre” but as a set of “dispersed romance elements,” namely “the transcendence of mundane reality, the sense of departure from central authority, and the subsequent resistance to completion” that recur in nineteenth-century British fiction (11, 86). Taking her lead from scholars such as Regenia Gagnier and Mary Poovey, Celikkol treats political economy and literature as separate and distinct discourses that nonetheless share a common set of concerns and tropes, including a deep interest in national security in the face of emerging free-trade practices.
Romances of Free Trade begins by examining the smuggler as a cautionary figure representing the potential disloyalty resulting from free trade’s dissolution of national borders. Celikkol suggests that as “underground practitioners of free trade,” the smugglers in Scott’s Waverley novels represent the individual autonomy encouraged by free trade practices (22). If Scott’s novels warned of the radical individuality that could result from free trade, Marryat’s nautical tales focused on the pleasures it offered, particularly the individual freedoms it imaginatively engendered. In the texts of Scott and Marryat, Celikkol argues, national identity is consistently imagined “in the contexts of international alliance, multinational community, and border-crossing commerce” (21). This analysis of subjectivity and space culminates in the book’s final chapter on Little Dorrit, a novel that, according to Celikkol, showcases the “compression of space” that resulted from mid-century global capitalism (123).
The book’s most interesting analysis is of the diverse treatment of sexuality and free trade in Martineau, Brontë, and early Victorian dramatists. While it [End Page 236] is not surprising that Martineau defends free trade practices in her short tale Dawn Island, Celikkol’s argument that Martineau uses fertility as a metaphor for unrestricted exchange and the human interconnection it fosters is striking and original. Celikkol demonstrates that, in contrast to Martineau’s representation of free trade as “a source of social cohesion,” several early Victorian dramatists deployed sexual metaphors to represent the impermanence of the social connections created by free-trade practices. Yet, as Celikkol demonstrates in her analysis of Brontë’s Shirley and The Professor, imaginative parallels were also established between the discourses of free trade and marriage, based upon their shared emphasis on mutuality.
Romances of Free Trade is meticulously researched, effectively organized (Celikkol impressively manages to organize the contents both thematically and chronologically), and persuasively argued. Its weakness lies, at times, in its emphasis on scope rather than depth. This is particularly true in the chapter on Marryat’s nautical fiction; a notable exception in this chapter, however, is Celikkol’s fascinating and detailed analysis of gender-bending and transgressive sexuality in Snarleyyow or, The Dog Fiend. Romances of Free Trade joins...