The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel.
In her commanding and authoritative new study Catherine Gallagher addresses the vexed relation between nineteenth-century fiction and economic theory, and argues powerfully against the received wisdom which views this relation as explicitly antagonistic. On the contrary, as she demonstrates in impressively marshalled detail, the economic theorists' propagation of vitalistic and sensationalist principles which addressed key issues of life and death seeped into the texts of the major Victorian novelists despite their often avowed hostility to such discourse. The presiding genius of Gallagher's study is Thomas Malthus, whose Essay on Population in its various editions controversially insisted upon the primacy of procreative sexuality while urging abstinence or abolition of relief for the over-productive labouring poor. Such notions raised the ire of the first-generation Romantics, notably Coleridge and Southey, while Ricardo's ensuing analysis of post-Napoleonic economics appeared to pit a 'mechanistic' reading of human affairs against the' humanistic' literary sensibility. Gallagher brilliantly shows how deeply Malthus's theories were anti-utopian and yet founded upon the primacy of the human body, and thus in a curious sense as 'organic' as the countervailing philosophy of romanticism. Her dense analysis of Malthus, J. S. Mill, and J. R. McCulloch, while heavy going in places, pays off handsomely in her subsequent textual analyses of Dickens and George Eliot. Thus, for instance, in her reading of Hard Times, Gallagher argues, against the established reading of the novel, that the circus is itself to be conceived as a form of labour. Instead of representing a carnivalesque alternative to work, there are close parallels between Sleary's horse-riding and Bounderby's factory, united as they are through the labour theory of value. Our Mutual Friend is similarly to be read within this frame of ideas by insisting upon the role of the body, living or dead, in economic theory. Gallagher offers a Ruskinian reading of this novel centring upon issues of 'wealth' or 'illth', arguing that in its plot ramifications it is founded in the conditions of storytelling and regenerative change. Gallagher is especially alert here to the relevance of Chadwick's sanitarian campaigns to the trajectory of Dickens's novel, which might be viewed as an essay on the 'doubleness' of waste. She follows this with an equally persuasive account of Daniel Deronda read through the economic theory propounded by Stanley Jevons and Richard Jennings, based as it is in the language of physiology and consumption. George Eliot, Gallagher argues, was alarmed by the notion of the decline of aesthetic value through repetition (for example, by silly lady novelists), causing literary value to decrease as it is 'consumed' by the reader. This enables Gallagher to read the major characters of Daniel Deronda convincingly in accordance with the parameters of artistic motivation. She then rather curiously reverses chronology by stepping back to consider an earlier text, Scenes of Clerical Life, which she reads as an inherently Malthusian text treating sexuality and culture, and the growth of consciousness. The concluding pages, encompassing a hasty trajectory from George Eliot via Hardy to T. S. Eliot, are rushed and gestural, but overall The Body Economic will doubtless become required reading for anyone seeking to understand the complex lines of affiliation and resistance between economic theory and the literary text in the mid-Victorian period.
I note the following errors: Priestly (p. 68); Harriett Martineau (p. 78); Humphrey House (p. 107); Battaille (p. 116).
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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