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Gentlemen Capitalists: The Social and Political World of the Victorian Businessman.

Gentlemen Capitalists: The Social and Political World of the Victorian Businessman, by H.L. Malchow. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1992. xii, 423 pp. $47.50 U.S.

Who were they, these ubiquitous presences, these Victorian businessmen, these merchants, manufacturers and bankers who so industriously gathered the capital, created the firms, sold the products and otherwise formed the heart of industrial Britain? Social, economic, and business historians have long recognized their significance in an abstract manner as they hired their way to more interesting studies of the labour movement, of crafty politicians, or of the abstractions of economic growth and contraction. Once ghostly figures all, their time is now come. The ground was prepared, in part, by Peter Gay's foray into the bourgeois experience and by Leonore Davidoff's and Catherine Hall's concern for the men and women of the English middle class. H.L. Malchow's Gentlemen Capitalists sharpens the focus and leads us into the complicated worlds of the successful Victorian businessman.

The main part of the book consists of four extended biographies of men who entered into national politics during the crucial period between the second and third reform bills. Malchow selected his main characters carefully: Samuel Holland (1803-92), an English slate quarry owner who lived in north Wales; William McArthur (1809-87), an Ulster-born merchant trading largely with Australasia; Robert Fowler (1828-91), and English private banker; and John Holms (1830-91), a Scot who helped run a worsted manufacturing company from his base in London. Despite the diversity of their origins and occupations, the four figures shared several characteristics: all began life within the bounds of the provincial middle classes; all amassed considerable wealth as a consequence of their own business acumen; and all had active political lives, both at the local level (both McArthur and Fowler served terms as Lord Mayor of London) and in Parliament as back-benchers or, as in the case of Holms, in positions of secondary importance.

Under Malchow's careful prodding, each of these worthy figures comes substantially to life. Holland's quiet and essentially dull and unambitious contentment, McArthur's unsophisticated evangelical provincialism, Fowler's lifelong conflict between his Quaker past and Anglican banker present, and Holms's political ambition marked each as highly idiosyncrantic individuals. As biographies follow one another, Malchow is able to broaden the base of his commentary and to create a second level of analysis consisting of an increasingly dense network of comparisons and of contrasts. Not only are four interesting individuals rescued from oblivion but a number of suggestive similarities emerge, ranging from Malchow's commentary on the essentially secondary position which most businessmen occupied in a parliament dominated yet by professionals and landed classes to his discussion of the way in which his figures detached themselves from their business interests as they entered into parliamentary activity.

As domestic history, Gentlemen Capitalists fares less well. It is a very masculine book, one in which wives and daughters are but dim and insubstantial shadows. McArthur's wife, Marianne, and Fowler's wife Sarah Charlotte, both failed in middle age and became semi-invalids; neither of Holland's wives nor Lizzie Holms emerge as three-dimensional characters. The problem is not so much of the author's making, however, as of the society's about which he is writing. The business world was overwhelmingly male, as were the philanthropic and political voluntary associations to which his subjects belonged. And parliament, of course, was entirely a masculine preserve. Thus, the separation of gender roles detected by Davidoff and Hall becomes obvious. Women, when obtrusive at all, are cast in firmly domestic roles. Further, such records as have survived -- diaries, memoirs, reverential biographies, and public records -- all tend to ignore the familial infrastructure which supported male business and political lives.

A more significant problem -- because it was more readily avoidable -- has to do with Malchow's failure successfully to knit together his successful biographical and comparative material with a large body of prosopographical material which he provides. The book incorporates analyses of the social, business, and family connections and of the careers of over two hundred additional people with business interests. This sample was drawn from a yet larger pool of 2,849 individuals who were identified as having been active in a variety of philanthropic and political voluntary associations. The problem is that biography -- even when tempered by comparison -- tends to emphasize singularity. Hence, it highlights the complexity inherent in individual lives and in the Victorian business community. Computer assisted large scale sample analyses tend, on the other hand, to highlight similarities and suggest commonality. Malchow was obviously faced with the dilemma that both kinds of understanding are desirable; his failure was in his inability to knit the two kinds of knowledge into one seamless study. Thus, for example, Malchow's long discussion of "Causes and the Merchant Elite" (pp. 131-42), while informative, is overly intrusive and distracting.

Malchow's book is an ambitious one, and brave, attempting as it does to understand the domestic, commercial, and political lives of middle class merchants, manufacturers, and bankers. It can also be an awkward one, and frustrating, as shortcomings of method become obvious. In the end, however, one must conclude that this is a book to read, to ponder and, ultimately, to forgive as its delights and benefits overcome its weaknesses.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Batzel, Victor M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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