- Personal Business: Character and Commerce in Victorian Literature and Culture by Aeron Hunt
In Personal Business, Aeron Hunt offers a careful reassessment of two of our idées reçues about the nineteenth century: that the economic world became increasingly rationalized, with an increased tendency toward abstraction of all kinds; and that corporations and other large-scale and impersonal economic agents replaced individuals. Hunt points out that economic historians have long held the view that, rationalization notwithstanding, Victorian business continued to be based on personal and familial relations; it is literary criticism that clings to a less nuanced vision of Max Weber’s ineluctable iron cage of modernity. As Hunt convincingly shows, the Victorians remained thoroughly preoccupied with the role of individual character in the business world: What could they really know about the people with whom they traded? Could salaried employees be trusted in the same way as partners? Did bankruptcy stem from moral weakness? Could financial acumen—or complete fecklessness—be inherited from the previous generation? Victorian writers of inspirational business hagiographies and hard-headed business guides alike were deeply concerned with such questions.
But this historical picture is only part of Hunt’s project. Personal Business uses the all-pervasive issue of character as a way of showing the proximity of the Victorian business world to that of Victorian literature. In doing so, Hunt offers a critique of Mary Poovey’s influential Genres of the Credit Economy (2008), which argues, among other things, that in the nineteenth century, the literary realm became increasingly removed from other kinds of writing, offering a self-referential aesthetic world in lieu of outside reference. (As a master-narrative, Poovey’s anti-discursive account resembles Georg Lukács’s hostile account of Modernism, mutatis mutandis; in this respect, the “new economic criticism” is, perhaps, not so very different from the old.) For Hunt, the issue of character provides an example of how this interchange happened: literary and commercial texts both concerned themselves, in similar ways, with issues of character, proof that specialization at the level of form does not necessarily mean an end to literature’s relationship with other kinds of writing; mediation, in Marxist terms, can sometimes take fairly direct forms. Hunt argues of course, that this is in part because character is no more to be taken for granted as a factor in the business world than it is in the novel; it is something to be interpreted and guessed at, and something that shifts with the nature of the transaction involved.
In four chapters, Personal Business takes us on a quick tour of the Victorian financial world while also offering us detailed readings of four novels: Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848), Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (1883). The financial tour alone is well worth taking. This reader, at [End Page 196] least, was not familiar with such things as character books, which consisted of “testimonials, hearsay, and observational notes about local and foreign business clients and associates, especially potential ones” (23). Equally interesting are the controversies about the new category of salaried business managers, who seem, like Victorian governesses, to have been perceived as worryingly interstitial, neither employees nor proper members of the family business. But readers of Victorian Review will also be drawn to the literary readings that such richly detailed information makes possible. Taking two of the major texts under consideration, Hunt demonstrates that both Dombey and Son and The Mill on the Floss responded to contemporary economic concerns and offered their own insights into how character was read. Carker, the smiling villain of Dombey and Son, comes into much clearer focus when we realize that the novel is touching on contemporary debates about the trustworthiness of business managers, as well as reworking details of the real-life defalcations of one Thomas Powell. Powell was a managing clerk for the merchant Thomas Chapman, an aspiring author...