This essay will propose that for an historical understanding of Scott’s fiction—or Romantic texts more generally—we should read them not as representations but rather as objects of exchange that embody social labor. The historically specific forms of the exchanges in which they took part and of the equivalents in which their value was realized determined the texts’ formal traits, which when this determination is ignored have the appearance of unmotivated play. The essay will offer its critical practice as an example to show that by a formalist reading of Scott’s fiction we can gain an historical understanding of textual production in the years of British publishing’s takeoff into capitalism. This reading will attend above all to the topic of signature, to the differentiations of text and paratext, and to those of writing as material practice and as abstraction, both as motifs in the Waverley novels and as problems in their social production and circulation.
In Marx, capital is formally a moment of self-referentiality in the system of mediations that is a money economy. As capital money appears to lose the mediating relation to other commodities that normally defines it, and to relate only to itself in a process for which Marx gives the elementary formula M->M. The project of Capital is to dissolve this appearance of capital’s identity. In discussing Scott, however, we are concerned with an historical moment at which that identity has scarcely yet been constituted. Scott wrote at a time and in a place where the money supply was in practice extremely heterogeneous and the question of money’s identity was a hotly debated topic in political economy.
My main theoretical claim in this essay is that the indeterminacy of the money form for which Scott exchanged his labor as a novelist is allegorized in traits of the novels themselves. I will make this case principally through a reading of The Antiquary (1816), the third Waverley novel and one of the most playfully self-referential. In this novel the inhomogeneity of money and the difficulty of recognizing it is a recurrent topic; two of the novel’s subplots turn on representations of transactions in the form M->M as comedies of error. In one, the Tory Baronet Sir Arthur Wardour becomes the dupe of a German swindler, who in exchange for an investment of “dirty Fairport banknotes” promises him “pure gold and silver, I cannot tell how much!" In the other, Wardour’s comic foil, Jonathan Oldbuck, the antiquary of the title, pays in good money for what he takes to be curious old coins, only to find that what he has purchased, though old, is a still-current instance of Scottish token coinage. Money, far from providing a uniform standard of value, becomes the novel’s principal instance of irreducible difference.
Monetary difference in The Antiquary certainly allegorizes cultural and political difference; elsewhere in Scott’s work, in The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826), written to defend Scots’ use of small denomination banknotes where the British system used coin, this allegory becomes explicit. The Scottish monetary system is defended not as superior to others, but on the grounds of difference itself. The frugality of a paper circulation that does not withdraw any useful commodity from circulation is explained as the expression of a frugal national character, formed by a harsh climate and poor land.
This essay argues, however, that the monetary difference that repeatedly disrupts exchange within the diegesis of The Antiquary also corresponds to formal traits of the text that do not readily lend themselves to culturalist interpretations of the kind that Scott himself pioneered. The uncertain boundary between what is and what is not money in the novel is the expression of a specific conjuncture in the historical development of capital and also an instance of a general problematic of the textual boundary that pervades the Waverley novels, with their serial form, indistinguishable protagonists, and extensive textual periphery in Scott’s introductions, prefaces, notes and other apparatus. When money is represented in The Antiquary as bearing effaced or illegible signatures the novel incorporates within itself another instance of one of its own formal traits, framed as it is by the long performance of his own anonymity that Scott carried on before finally acknowledging in 1827 that he was the author of the Waverley novels. These formal traits of the Waverley novels, I will show, are determined by the historically specific forms of exchange by which the value of Scott’s labor was realized and ultimately transformed into capital.