Literary classics from another era can tell us a lot about today’s economy.
Listener: 2 January, 2014.
Keywords: Literature and Culture; Political Economy & History;
This year I’ve been reading early 19th-century novels, partly for their literary quality and narrative, but also because they shed a fascinating light on English industrialisation and the social transformation that accompanied it.
I started with the socially stable world of Jane Austen. Not quite. Her last work, Persuasion, begins with the intimation that the rural squirearchy is dying off. The transformer is legalised piracy, because crews of the Royal Navy (fighting the Napoleonic French) got a share of prize money for capturing enemy vessels. Impoverished Sir Walter Elliot rents his house to an admiral. Ten years earlier, Captain Wentworth had been too poor for Anne Elliot to marry. Now rich from the piracy, it is a matter of true love overcoming the usual human misunderstandings.
You get no sense from Austen’s novels that 250km to the north, Luddites were destroying wool and cotton mills. (Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley describes one instance, also blaming it on the Napoleonic Wars because the mill owners suffered as a result of their American and European markets being cut off.) England was really two economies: traditional rural inertia in its south, beautifully described by Austen, and the industrial revolution in the north. (As an aside, our 19th-century English ancestors came mainly from the south, where wages were lower and, as one novel notes, furniture inferior.)
Charles Dickens was too London-based to capture the industrial turmoil well, although he marvellously describes many of the other changes going on at the time, not least the railway revolution. His only northern novel, Hard Times, lacks an authenticity, except for the mine rescue, which he must have seen. Instead it attacks utilitarianism and its denial of the imagination. Thomas Gradgrind, a headmaster of a kind of charter school run on utilitarian principles, is still remembered for his concern with cold facts and numbers. (Dickens loathed
At a critical point, an unpleasant ex-pupil of the school, Blitzer, arrests a miscreant Gradgrind son, justifying his actions by self-interest. The dispute is resolved by circus master Sleary (the circus is a wonderfully Dickensian contrast to the school) overriding Blitzer because the Gradgrind family has done Sleary’s community a great favour.
Gradgrind abandons his failed philosophy – although only after he has greatly damaged the life of his favourite daughter – “making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity; and no longer trying to grind that heavenly trio in his dusty little mills”. He becomes much despised by his political associates.
Despite its inadequacy as a portrayal of industrialisation, Hard Times is a thoughtful read, especially for thosewho suffer from narrow economism.
The best portrait is North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, a minister’s wife from Manchester. Margaret Hale has to leave the rural south to live in dirty, smoky, ugly and disorganised Milton (Manchester). But she learns to love it – and a factory manager. One Londoner “almost exceeded Margaret in his appreciation of the character of Milton and its inhabitants. Their energy, their power, their indomitable courage in struggling and fighting; their lurid vividness of existence”. As Brontë said, “the genius of the North”.
The dichotomy is still there: genteel London and its financial sector dominating the British economy, booming it in prosperity, crashing it after the global financial crisis. Britain has lost its claim to be the workshop of the world. As a German said, “We sell products, you sell assets.”
Gaskell does not have the reputation of the other novelists I mentioned (or of George Eliot), although I am told her status is rising. Perhaps it is a lack of appreciation of her portrayal of the working class; she must have visited so many in her pastoral duties. Perhaps the literary world is not as engaged with the industrial world as she was.
I wonder whether our age has been in as much economic and social transformation. Perhaps in another 150 years some economist will read today’s novels and be as gripped by the portrayal of these times. Which contemporary novelist captures the change as well as Elizabeth Gaskell did?