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Matthew Rowlinson, Real Money and Romanticism

Thursday, March 10, 2011 - 04:10
Matthew Rowlinson, Real Money and Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 266pp. (Hdbk., $85.00; ISBN: 978-0521193795).

Reviewed by
Brett Mobley
Fordham University

The guiding claim of Matthew Rowlinson’s Real Money and Romanticism is that literary historians have overlooked the ways in which “British literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was shaped by changes in the economic structure of the publishing industry and the commodity status of intellectual property” (32). Rowlinson’s objective is to develop a new understanding of the connections between Romantic authors, print culture, and capital as each was changing during this tumultuous period. While much good work has been done on the economics of Romantic literature, Rowlinson’s approach departs from predecessors such as William St. Clair and Lee Erikson. His critical lexicon and methodology are primarily derived from Marx’s Capital (and reactions against Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations), with informing ideas from Marcel Mauss and Jacques Lacan. The works that receive this theoretically-charged critique include Scott’s Waverly novels (particularly Guy Mannering and The Antiquary), Keats’s “Fall of Hyperion,” and Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. One of these things is not like the other: Rowlinson includes Dickens in his broadened Romanticism as a writer who “acutely experienced” this “period of rapid change in the monetary system, in the British economy at large, and in the publishing trade” (32).

What Rowlinson calls “real money” focuses the opening two chapters. In the first, he develops a complex definition of money: drawing on the “chartalist” neo-Keynsian theories of Randall Wray, Rowlinson understands money as a circulation of “tokens representing debt” (8). From here, he builds on Mauss’s theories of gift-giving and Lacan’s concept of the Symbolic order to separate the physical body and commodity-exchange value of money from its sublime body, which he casts as a “kernel of rationality at the signifier’s heart” (30). This conceptualization of real money, Rowlinson argues, led Romantic-era authors to involve themselves in new and increasingly complex “relations of trust and symbolic identification” when making transactions, provoking anxieties about money which pervade many of the period’s works (32). A brief but detailed history of money in Britain follows in the second chapter, in which Rowlinson charts the shifts from gold and silver to bills and finally—in the context of a national crisis—to banknotes. Turning to Marx, Rowlinson questions the dominant narrative of The Suspension of Payments order of 1797. By charting this crisis’s history, and challenging Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s view of productive labor, Rowlinson argues that while utterance—variously, of debt, creativity, or work—could be transformed into many forms of the pound, “none of them, however, could be viewed as embodying the pound itself” (54). Together with his earlier chapter on real money, Rowlinson here offers a convincing, theoretically complex conception of an abstract and sublime body operative within money itself.

While Rowlinson’s literary purview may seem limited—three novels and one poem—he makes good use of the material he studies. The final chapters study Scott, Keats, and Dickens through an inquiry into the economics of literature. Rowlinson’s careful readings include a wide range literary and theoretical reference, but as in his earlier Tennyson’s Fixations (1994), he is at his best in close readings of literary works. The most robust of these comes in Chapter Five, “Reading capital with Little Nell.” Rowlinson begins the chapter by focusing on the commercial development of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. He argues that Dickens’s negotiations with his publishers commodified the piece as capital as it was being written. This historical discussion helps lead readers to Rowlinson’s central argument: within The Old Curiosity Shop, the virginally embodied Nell, “together with the insistent materiality of the curiosity shop and the miser’s hoard, [is] the central allegorization of the impossible materiality of money” (188). Rowlinson earns this claim through a well-plotted chapter peppered throughout with ingenious readings of Dickens.

Equally impressive are Rowlinson’s readings of Sir Walter Scott. Chapter Three, “Curiosities and the Money form in the Waverly novels,” builds on the previous definitions of real money while developing new readings of Marx, arriving at the claim that “capital views every commodity as merely a form of money—which is to say a medium to recognize itself” (57). The crux of Rowlinson’s argument begins to emerge more clearly in the form of an analogy: language—the text of the Waverly novels in this case—is like capital, and utterance turns into money through an obscured process of self-reference and self-disguise. Although Rowlinson worries that his analogically framed analysis “will seem fanciful” (58), he supports his claim by thoughtfully navigating the novels’ cryptic preoccupation with identity, self-discovery, and debt. These preoccupations crystallize as bank notes, doubled vehicles of economic value and papered waste, and Rowlinson’s sense that developments in the history of bills of exchange run parallel to Scott’s financial and creative development of the Waverly novels is deft:

In the crash of 1826, many of the debts of Constable that Scott was required to pay were … debts which had originally been due to him in return for novels promised or actually written. To be paid by bill was thus for Scott invariably to sign; and since after Waverley itself, he always had an advance on his share of the profits, Scott wrote his novels to make sure that the bills he had signed were retired. Scott wrote, in short, to withdraw his signature from circulation. (64)

Less certain is Rowlinson’s chapter on “Keats and the Hidden Abode of Production.” The majority of this chapter is spent bringing critical theory to bear on Keats’s decision to use Moneta—the etymological root for “money” in English—instead of Mnemosyne as the central allegorical figure of the “Hyperion” poems. Rowlinson argues that these poems “represent the mythic origin of labor,” and that in “The Fall” especially, Keats “allegorizes the embodiment of his own writing"(149). While suggestive, the argument tends to substitute its theoretical armature for either of the “Hyperions,” and an unfortunate drift away from the texts which nominally authorize the chapter may leave readers unconvinced of Keats’s place within the larger framework of the study.

At the same time, there is abundant recompense for Rowlinson’s theoretical focus, both here and throughout the book. While he spends a good deal of time re-conceptualizing Romanticism, by bookending each literary engagement with meditations on Marx, Rowlinson leaves us to think as much about a Romantic Marx as he does a Marxist Romanticism:

Our concern here has not been with intellectual history, but rather specifically with the way for both Marx and Keats the historiographic problem of the fall or profanation of sacred artifacts allegorizes the problem of the commodity’s relation to labor … Their shared topic—across all the obvious differences … is the historical effect on work of its transformation into commodified labor, which is withdrawn, as Foucault puts it, “behind the scenes.” (153)

This is one example of something implicit throughout: the criticism Rowlinson brings to bear on the sublimity of Romantic-era authors, and their anxieties concerning value and exchange, is equally attributable to the mysticism of Marx himself. By creating a new sense of Romanticism—one characterized by worries over the meanings and relationships of capital and labor—Rowlinson is ipso facto dubbing Marx a Romantic.

One need not be entirely persuaded by these cross-identifications between Marx and Romanticism to recognize that Rowlinson has achieved his major objective, and developed a new understanding of the connections between Romantic authors, their works, and money and capital. Best of all, this comes with a surprising timeliness: through his unexpected alignment with Randall Wray, Rowlinson situates himself at the cusp of neo-Keynsian thought, and in doing so evokes our own modern financial crises. Although Rowlinson shies away from making direct connections to the current economic climate, it is difficult to ignore the link, and Real Money and Romanticism raises questions that will be hard for economists and Romantic scholars alike to ignore.