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  • Culture and Money in the Nineteenth Century: Abstracting Economics ed. by Daniel Bivona and Marlene Tromp
  • Margaret Dobbins (bio)
Culture and Money in the Nineteenth Century: Abstracting Economics edited by Daniel Bivona and Marlene Tromp; pp. 240. Ohio UP, 2016. $79.95 cloth.

There is such universal agreement that more research is needed in the burgeoning field of economic literary studies (or New Economic Criticism, as it is commonly known) that Daniel Bivona and Marlene Tromp's new collection of essays, Culture and Money in the Nineteenth Century: Abstracting Economics, cannot be met with anything but excitement. The eight essays included in the volume cover a diverse and fascinating range of topics, including Victorian Art Union lotteries, monetary politics in 1870s America, the ideologically rich representation of textiles in the fiction of Walter Scott, and the morally fraught financial strategizing of Admiral Thomas Cochrane in mid-nineteenth-century Chile.

Attention to the generic overlap and cross-fertilization of literature, science, and political economy in the nineteenth century is nothing new in New Economic Criticism. Yet the essays in this volume offer targeted case studies of economic abstraction, illuminating how and why influential economic concepts shaped and were shaped by other nineteenth-century discourses. What the authors seek to uncover is "the universalized … nearly mythic structures that have been crafted in order to create our understanding of money and the economic structures through which it moves and has meaning" (15). In her excellent essay "Born to the Business: Heredity, Ability, and Commercial Character in Late Victorian England," for example, Aeron Hunt explores the complexity of character in the economic plot of Margaret Oliphant's Hester (1883). Hunt shows how the mysterious business [End Page 379] "genius" of the Vernon family evidences a late-Victorian anxiety about economic abstraction, writing that "hereditary business qualities could be moral (integrity) or intellectual (talent and aptitude); they could be subject to control and development (abilities) or beyond the reach of reason and will (instincts). In defining success as the product of inborn traits, the language of hereditary character formation promised more precision than it finally offered" (30). Drawing connections between the nineteenth century and today, Hunt shows that "a novelistic model of character" endures in modern economic life even as modern capitalism has become increasingly impersonal, intangible, and global (41). In his chapter, Bivona traces abstract political-economic concepts such as scarcity, the division of labour, monopoly, and specialization in the scientific writings of Charles Darwin. Revealing the intricate balance of competition and co-operation in nineteenth-century views of biological and economic systems, Bivona shows that "what looks like 'competition' is really 'cooperation' in disguise" (86). Rereading Darwin from the perspective of political economy as a "signally important meditation on the fraught issue of competition in the Victorian period," Bivona ultimately sheds light on the coldly utopian promise at the heart of the "dismal science" that projects future prosperity, but only for successful competitors (73).

Culture and Money is notable not only for its interdisciplinarity (its chapters track the process of economic abstraction across the fields of nineteenth-century literature, science, art, and politics) but also for its international scope: as the editors contend, "no system of currency, of wealth and poverty, or of economic relationships has been able to operate without reference to the global landscape" (15). In her compelling essay "From Cooperation to Concentration: Socialism, Salvationism, and the 'Indian Beggar,'" for example, Suzanne Daly extends the discussion about economic co-operation that Bivona begins by focusing on the real and imagined figure of the impoverished Indian beggar. Approaching the Indian beggar as a "British master trope" (145), Daly explores utopian socialism in nineteenth-century British South Asia as the "vanishing mediator between earlier forms of imperial philanthropy and the state-sponsored regimes carried out by the ISA [Indian Salvation Army] in the early twentieth century" (146). In the nuanced concluding chapter of the volume, Tromp turns to the "extraordinary" social afterlife of Victorian wills. Charting anxieties concerning "antidomestic investment" from 1850 to 1885, Tromp shows how "a will that leaves family wealth to those outside the domestic space becomes 'unnatural' and serves as a metaphor for the 'unnatural' failure...


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