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Matthew Rowlinson. Real Money and Romanticism.

Matthew Rowlinson. Real Money and Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xi+249. $89.00.

"An allegory," Coleridge famously remarked in the Statesman's Manual, "is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses; the principal being more worthless even than its phantom proxy, both alike unsubstantial, and the former shapeless to boot." Following Coleridge, critics have often denigrated allegory, reading literature in philosophical or historical contexts symbolically, in Coleridge's terms, "partak[ing] of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole ... as a riving part in that unity of which it is the representative." To be sure, critics appreciate the fact that, in practice, symbolic analysis is itself highly figurative, even allegorical. As Frye noted in The Anatomy of Criticism, "the instant that any critic permits himself to make a genuine comment about a poem (e.g., 'In Hamlet Shakespeare appears to be portraying the tragedy of irresolution') he has begun to allegorize." In the 1970s, Paul de Man showed that criticism undermines its symbolic pretensions by revealing its allegorical dimensions in moments of rhetorical self-consciousness. New-historicism demonstrated how literary works resist their own historicization by making history itself appear as allegory. Still, such acknowledgments are rare. We tend to assume--symbolically--that Keats's poems or Austen's novels tell us about capitalism or interiority or secularism rather than admit that such associations come from us.

Real Money and Romanticism takes an overtly allegorical approach to its historical subject: Romanticism's relation to financial history. For a long time, the suspension of cash payments at the Bank of England, which made Britain a paper money economy from 1797 to 1821, warranted little more than a few footnotes in Romantic studies. The last few years have seen several articles on the subject and three books: Robert Mitchell's Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era (Routledge, 2007), Mary Poovey's Genres of the Credit Economy (Chicago, 2008), and now Rowlinson's. But whereas Mitchell and Poovey read both literature and economics historically, that is symbolically, as illustrations of an overarching historical narrative, Rowlinson is interested in what the historical method leaves behind, its "waste," the curious relationality or allegories that exist between forms of value: money and literature and the connections between them.

Rowlinson takes as his starting point Marx's dictum that "money is a social relation." Money exists as the difference between the values of commodities in exchange. It comes into being when that relation is reified in a system of price or credit, and when the commodities disappear money persists in a symbolic or "sublime" form. This story has been told since before the Greeks. Yet, following recent work in anthropology and sociology, as well as a panoply of critical theorists from Freud and Mauss to Derrida and Zizek, Rowlinson turns this story inside out: monetary objects (coins, bills, records, accounts, books) survive their conversion into money and retain traces of the social relations that the money form abandons. Thus, when a check is endorsed, it can pass as money from one recipient to another. But in retaining the form of a written contract, the endorsed check retains traces of the original exchange and its status as money is exposed as a further relation dependent on it. Rowlinson calls these surviving monetary objects "curiosities"; while he does not cite recent important work by Ina Ferris, Katie Trumpener, and Susan Manning, there is much in Rowlinson's argument that will, I think, attract anyone interested in the theoretical implications of Romantic antiquarianism.

To this already difficult theoretical argument Rowlinson adds an equally controversial historical one. Contrary to received historical wisdom, paper credit is not an abstract derivative of coin; rather, standardized coinage systems based on the presumed "intrinsic" value of gold were introduced in the early nineteenth century as a way to regulate and homogenize the circulation of credit. Before that time, money in Britain (and everywhere else) was a heterogeneous, unwieldy collocation of debts and credits, coins and paper, gifts and contracts, rife with antitheses and contradictions that were as confusing for their users then as they are interesting for cultural theorists now. In chapter 2, Rowlinson builds his version of this vital argument around a brief history of the bill of exchange. Through the early modern period, the growing class of merchants had turned local forms of credit exchange and promissory notes into the chief negotiating instrument of their international credit networks, and by the seventeenth century bills of exchange were commonplace in all manner of trade. But while bills of exchange fostered a sense of economic uniformity between traders, they also established a sense of national difference, as each bill was accorded a value relative to the exchange rate between its country of origin and its country of destination. A bill of exchange thus "structured the subjects who dealt with it as themselves situated--as sharing a delimited space with other subjects with whom they also in principle shared an immediately negotiable currency, and distinct from foreign subjects with whom they traded through the medium of bills" (37-38). Standardized national currencies developed in the nineteenth century to further homogenize the flow of capital made possible by the bills of exchange but also to legitimize the sense of national or, as in the case of Britain, colonial distinctiveness occluded by that flow. But in Scotland, which had an older and in some respects better credit system than England, elements of a localized politics of credit-exchange persisted. Even after the gold standard was introduced, the British financial system retained its curious heterogeneity.

Rowlinson concludes this chapter with Walter Scott's 1826 Letters of Malachi Malagrowther, his defense of the "distinctiveness" of the Scottish banking system against English efforts to legislate it out of existence (53). Scott's "regional attachment" to the Scottish paper money system provides a nice segue to the first of the three literary chapters on the Waverley Novels, primarily The Antiquary. Essentially a novel of disguise and identity, The Antiquary is also, for Rowlinson, about the difficulty of identifying the form of value. At its heart are various conflicting notions of what counts as money--paper, coin, land, bullion, trust--that reflect other intersections of personal value between landowner and tenant, debtor and creditor, parents and children, nation and empire, past and present. Rowlinson extends these internal difficulties of plot and character to the network of bills, contracts, and companies (in some of which Scott himself was a partner). "The means by which Scott was paid for his novels," Rowlinson writes, "make it extraordinarily difficult to say when the sale and purchase of a given novel has been completed. When he is paid with a bill, Scott involves himself, and his proxies, in an indeterminate series of future transactions; this fact is reflected in the serial character of the novels themselves and the series of mutually supporting signatures that they bear" (65). The anonymous "Author of Waverley" and the genre that it is often said to have inaugurated are thus for Rowlinson symbols that mask the allegorical character not only of the novels themselves but also of the relations that produced them.

The remaining chapters consider similar relations within and around Keats's later poetry and Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. Rowlinson's accounts of the difficulties Keats faced in understanding what it means to be a poet in an age of capitalist production, built around a nuanced interpretation of the many references to money and debt in the letters and a subtle delineation of Keats's experiments with allegorical form are nothing short of brilliant. Like the Waverley novels, Keats's poems repeatedly explode their own "fetishistic character" as anachronistic curiosities and thus reproduce, allegorically, the processes of figuration and deconstruction inherent in the money form itself (142). That Keats was thinking of his own financial difficulties when he wrote these poems has been a mainstay of criticism for decades. But until now I have not encountered a reading that so thoroughly enmeshes the vibrant figurality of the poems with the intricacies of the money form. Nevertheless, at close to 60 pages, this is by far the most challenging chapter in what is already a labyrinthine study, and some of the lengthier theoretical passages are a tad distracting. The last chapter is more balanced, showing how The Old Curiosity Shop allegorizes the problematic interplay between various kinds of value, capital and antiquity, literary and economic, that the nineteenth century symbolic imagination (after Coleridge) tried to rationalize away.

Rowlinson is conscious of the potential shortcomings of his allegorical method: its associations can feel forced and its speculations errant. Rowlinson can sometimes seem overawed by the "difficulty" (a favorite word) of the many relations he has uncovered. The occasional "may" and "perhaps" appearing in some of the conclusive sentences weaken otherwise commanding arguments. But though the arguments of this book are at times confusing, Rowlinson has done the study of British Romanticism a great service. The history of British finance during the Romantic period is an inordinately difficult, messy, and confusing subject. It cannot, should not, be reduced to simplistic or symbolic narrative, however palatable it might appear. What Rowlinson has done, above all, is make clear not only how difficult this history is but also how much the Romantics were obsessed with it. But this book is not a history of money and Romanticism nor, I think, was it intended to be. Writing such a history would have undermined Rowlinson's and the Romantics' nuanced understanding of capitalism and literature's "curious" relation to it.

Alexander Dick

University of British Columbia
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Author:Dick, Alexander
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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