ROMANCES OF FREE TRADE: BRITISH LITERATURE, LAISSEZ-FAIRE, AND THE GLOBAL NINETEENTH CENTURY by Ayse Celikkol, Reviewed by Patrick Brantlinger
 

ROMANCES OF FREE TRADE: BRITISH LITERATURE, LAISSEZ-FAIRE, AND THE GLOBAL NINETEENTH CENTURY
By Ayse Celikkol
(Oxford, 2011) x + 189 pp.
Reviewed by Patrick Brantlinger on 2011-07-20.

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The oxymoronic title of this book proclaims its dual focus on literature and economics. In the words of the title of a 1999 anthology edited by Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen, it is an ambitious addition to "the new economic criticism." Begun as a dissertation, Çelikkol's study shows how novelists and also playwrights from Sir Walter Scott to Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens used the conventions of romance to narrate some of the consequences of free trade, a central feature of economic modernity. Between the early 1800s and the 1860s, Scott's novels in particular and British literature in general did indeed explore "the subjective consequences of free trade by correlating border-crossing commerce to individuals' feelings of liberation from, and harmony with, their communities" (5).

Romance conventions, Çelikkol contends, allowed novelists to transcend the boundaries of fictional realism, which usually confined itself to local communities and regions within Britain, and to depict the consequences of increasingly unbounded, transnational capitalism. Early economists from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill debated the benefits of free trade versus protectionism, and in various ways, novels of the period mirrored these debates. Abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 marked the key though hardly final victory for the advocates of free trade. Protectionists, Çelikkol points out, saw free trade as a threat to national sovereignty because it encouraged the unimpeded, global circulation of commodities and money. But in novels and plays by Scott, G. P. R. James, Captain Frederick Marryat, and others, the smuggler emerged as a sort of pioneer of free trade, serving often as an anti-government hero. "The common appellation of smugglers as 'the free traders,' Çelikkol writes, "identified them as underground champions of laissez-faire who courageously confront government tyranny" (87). Other figures in "romances of free trade" who likewise break laws or cross national borders include "hedonistic" sailors, transnational merchants, and promiscuous women.

Citing Mikhail Bakhtin, Çelikkol analyzes the chronotopes of realistic versus romantic elements in early nineteenth-century fiction. She also draws upon Georg Lukács, Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, and various contributors to the new economic criticism, including Regenia Gagnier, Catherine Gallagher, Mary Poovey, Gordon Bigelow, and Claudia Klaver. With Ian Duncan, she views the "romances" she examines as forming a distinctly modern genre. Among other virtues, her study features not only several major authors (Scott, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë), but also some minor ones, including playwrights John Lettsom Elliot and Thomas Serle.

Çelikkol insightfully explores the links and likenesses between literary conventions and genres on the one hand and economic factors on the other. Marryat's nautical fictions, she observes, stress "the putative immorality of unrestricted exchange" and condemn attempts to escape "disciplinary structures and lead lives outside the purview of the nation state. Ironically, his writing enacts the defiant attitude that seems so damnable when it undermines state power. His plots are as undisciplined as the fictional...sailors who run away" (57). Similarly, in her chapter on free trade and early Victorian drama, Çelikkol argues that "figurations of sexuality involving promiscuity, bigamy, or homoeroticism signaled moral threats posed by the gradual dissolution of economic protectionism" (83). In other words, while portrayals of smugglers often treated free trade favorably, portrayals of sexual deviance or even hints about it often (but not always) did just the opposite. Moreover, as Çelikkol points out, John Stuart Mill, an advocate of free trade and of liberalism more generally, also advocated expanded rights and freedom for women (94).

Thomas Serle's 1836 melodrama A Ghost Story, Çelikkol notes, was illegitimately staged: "Plays featured in the likes of the Adelphi Theater were themselves in some sense contraband," similar to the goods that Serle's smugglers import and export. Furthermore, she writes, smugglers were linked to the ghost story, a genre "completely different" from either melodrama or narrative romance, and the link was made in part because "contraband traders [often] disguised themselves as ghosts and initiated rumors of haunting to account for their nocturnal activities" (88). In contrast to Serle's melodrama, two farces by John Lettsom Elliot, Three to One (1850) and Five to Two (1851), highlight the flirtations of married women and "the possibility of polygamy" (96). Elliot coupled sexual promiscuity with free trade, which he opposed. (He also wrote an essay on the virtues of economic protection, published in 1847, the year after the Corn Laws were abolished.)

It may be surprising to find any story by Harriet Martineau treated as a romance, but "Dawn Island" invites such treatment by telling how a savage society is converted to modern commerce and free trade. While Martineau's tale may not be a "quintessential" imperial romance like Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, Çelikkol argues, it "forges a linguistic style that correlates to the economic principles put forth by the Anti-Corn Law League" (79). ("Dawn Island" was in fact written specifically as a piece of Anti-Corn Law League propaganda.) But when Çelikkol claims that King Solomon's Mines represents "a world beyond the reach of capitalist development" (79), I disagree.

That may have been Haggard's wish, but all of his early readers would have assumed that empire, and therefore capitalism, would eventually come even to "darkest" Africa. Furthermore, all imperial romances, especially when they involve treasure hunts, are linked to what Marx called "primitive accumulation," which he considered the first stage in the emergence of capitalism. (According to David Harvey in The New Imperialism, capitalist "accumulation by dispossession" continues to this day, in--for instance-- the extraction of oil from the Middle East, Nigeria, and elsewhere.)

The dual themes of women's liberation and free trade versus protectionism also inform Charlotte Brontë's The Professor, Shirley, and Villette. In Shirley, factory owner Robert Moore is stymied by the Orders in Council in the early 1800s and beset by Luddite machine-breakers. Because Moore and his schoolteacher brother Louis are "hybrid" characters, raised partly on the continent, they do not claim any particular allegiance to England. Hence they represent a cosmopolitanism which, throughout her study, Çelikkol astutely links with free trade (economic exchange and mind-sets that transcend national boundaries and narrow nationalisms). Further, Shirley's "yearning for liberty" matches Robert's desire to be rid of legal incumbrances and local myopias so that he can do business as he pleases. Together with her analysis of Shirley, Çelikkol's account of The Professor and Villette makes a valuable contribution to Brontë criticism.

Turning next to Dickens's Little Dorrit, Çelikkol examines its treatment of smuggling, including, at least implicitly, the smuggling of opium into China by the East India Company. Dickens etches transnational capitalism darkly, partly through "the Gothic appearances and disappearances of the international blackmailer" Rigaud (135), and also of course through Merdle's shady financial transactions. Likewise, he pessimistically represents the state by means of the Circumlocution Office, which, though involved in everything, has something to do with "tonnage," as Çelikkol notes, or in other words with ships and the global circulation of commodities. "The theme of imprisonment," Çelikkol writes, "works in conjunction with the novel's unrelenting emphasis on commercial activity: isolation and permeation [or circulation], the themes on which Dickens the virtuoso plays variations, not only comment on human psychology but also address the global character of capitalist exchange relations" (124).

Unlike the chapter on Charlotte Brontë, this one treats only one novel, and might have been enriched by commentary on topics such as shipping in Dombey and Son and opium in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In dealing with the Opium Wars, Çelikkol might also have stressed that, as Marx observed, Britain rationalized the wars and its monopoly on the drug as a way of opening up China to "free trade":

While openly preaching free trade in poison, [Britain] secretly defends the monopoly of its manufacture. Whenever we look closely into the nature of British free trade, monopoly is pretty generally found to lie at the bottom of its "freedom." (Marx, "The Opium Trade" [1858])

Çelikkol recognizes, however, that the opium trade was conducted through colonial protectionism and monopoly; she later acknowledges that "free trade and protectionist colonialism reinforced one another" (147).

Throughout her study, Çelikkol illuminates the works she analyzes. Nevertheless, her book displays a few of the weaknesses typical of first books based on dissertations. While she expertly cites numerous economists from Adam Smith to Mill, further research into pre-nineteenth-century British literary and economic history might have helped sharpen her argument. For one thing, she might have recognized figures who combine romance and economics in the novels of Daniel Defoe, in the mercantilist period that predates the controversy over free trade versus protectionism. Defoe's pirates, transnational merchants, and sailors prefigure the smugglers, transnational merchants, and sailors in the nineteenth-century literature she examines. Likewise, his money-minded heroines, Moll Flanders and Roxanna, anticipate--in the Romantic and Victorian eras--female characters whose commercial and sexual behaviors cross legal, ethical, and national boundaries.

After 1846 and the abolition of the Corn Laws, as Marx's comment on "free trade in poison" suggests, what the British called "free trade" was inseparable from "free trade imperialism": control acquired mainly through economic rather than military and governmental clout, as in much of Latin America. From about 1850 on, Britain could dominate many parts of the world without creating and governing new colonies. In the nineteenth century as in our own time, capitalist free trade turns out to be not so free after all. Çelikkol might also have extended her study beyond "romances of free trade" to examine a few "imperial romances" like King Solomon's Mines. Both modes of romance leant ideological support simultaneously to free trade capitalism and to the mighty British Empire. Despite these minor limitations, Romances of Free Trade will repay reading by anyone interested in British literature ca. 1800-1860s and in the intersections between literature and economics. I look forward to reading Çelikkol's future contributions to the new economic criticism.

Patrick Brantlinger is Rudy Professor Emeritus of English and Cultural Studies at Indiana University, where he served as editor of Victorian Studies in the 1980s. His most recent book is Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh, 2010); forthcoming from Cornell is Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians.


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