From early in the Victorian period the term character had been applied to institutions or instruments referring to their degree of reliability; in describing the “character” of a bank or bill of exchange, for example, one suggested whether it was backed by strong economic foundations and stable and trustworthy men. [86]

Illuminated initial P bookcover

ersonal Business opens with the important observation that nineteenth-century capitalism was hardly as impersonal as often claimed, since lending one’s capital and permitting others to manage it, as in a company owned by someone else, required trust based upon correctly evaluating another person's character. “Trust was an essential element of credit decisions, banking operations, local and international mercantile and financial transactions, and so forth; indeed the degree of commercial confidence in Britain and the empire was recognized as a primary aspect of the prosperity that the nation was enjoying” (40-41).

The book next proceeds to examine the crucial matter of character in business biography and in a (very) few novels — chiefly Dickens's Dombey and Son, Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Trollope's The Way we Live now, and Oliphant's Hester. Along the way, Hunt offers interesting, usually convincing readings of well-known works, demonstrating, for example, the final mysteriousness of Melmotte’s character and the role Eliot’s knowledge of familial bankruptcy had upon her plot and upon her leading “the reader to question the kinds of character statements that commonly pass as having their origins in personal knowledge” (129). Similarly she contextualizes the events of Dombey & Son in two ways, first by relating Dickens’s relationship with Thomas Powell, “a managing clerk,” forger, and embezzler who stole £10,000 from “the mercantile firm of John Chapman & Co.” (33), and second by explaining that most Victorian businesses remained family firms, like Dombey & Son, even after the development of the modern limited liability company.

Her second chapter — “Routinized Charisma and the Romance of Trade: The Story of Commercial Character, 1850-1885” — begins with business biographies and ends with Augustus Melmotte. According to Hunt, after mid-century “the subjects of business biographies come to be endowed with qualities that are even more personalized, constructed by an increasingly explicit rhetoric of heroism and romance that renders businessmen as geniuses, artists, even magicians. This heightened personalization invests them with charisma,” which involved increasingly employing “techniques of characterization and narration familiar from literary writing, whether the accretion of incidental detail of realist writing or the more explicit codes of romance.” (71). Although this biographical genre draws heavily upon contemporary and earlier fiction, “no grieving wives, sons, or daughters appear” (77) in these memorializing texts, and occasionally families are almost completely excised from the businessman's history. Hunt usefully distinguishes between the nature of character in fiction and business biographies, pointing out that “fictional characters, with their bounded textual existence—in which they were equal to their representation—offered a comparatively secure, logically and experientially sufficient set of signs and problems to interpret. .. . [and] they offered a fantasy of comprehensibility that real characters—with their comparatively opaque consciousnesses, their historical referentiality countered by an openness to change—would never match” (40). This fundamental difference between character in business biography and fiction has importance because in Victorian “business culture” the accurate evaluation of character “was being promoted as a key to managing the problem of trust” (40).

Personal Business claims that its examination of business biographies, instruction manuals, bankruptcy law, and some Victorian fiction has revealed that

a particular model of character assumed a business value and demanded a particular interpretive skill that was at once imaginative, cognitive, psychological, and aesthetic. Because this aesthetic, grounded in attention to surface detail and the movement from surface detail to characterological depth, had a parallel in the kind of interpretive practice that was increasingly demanded of novel readers, management represents a case study establishing in business practice a link between market culture and a form of subjectivity imagined through literary writing. But even though it promised to offer reassurance, this link was troubling precisely because its representational problematic was foregrounded in a business culture in which character reading was being promoted as a key to managing the problem of trust. Fictional characters, with their bounded textual existence—in which they were equal to their representation—offered a comparatively secure, logically and experientially sufficient set of signs and problems to interpret. [40]

Precisely what does this paragraph, which seems to promise great insights, actually say? that both novels and business biographies offered complex characters, which work better in fiction than in nonfiction?

Chapter 3, “Reading Ruin: Failure and the Forms of Character, 1849-1865," which focuses on bankruptcy and Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, nicely surveys bankruptcy laws and explains a fascinating, if short-lived, attempt to create legal evaluations and endorsements of character. The final chapter, “The Heir Apparent: Gender and the Transmission of Talent in Margaret Oliphant's Hester,” concentrates on passing down the family firms from one generation to another. Since this discussion of Oliphant properly emphasizes matters of gender, it's odd she doesn't point to the key issue that brought about the Married Woman's Property Act of 1870 — the legal fiction that upon marriage the man and woman become a single self, with the result that all the woman's property becomes her husband’s. Perhaps many family bankruptcies might have been avoided if women had been legally permitted to retain the property they had brought to a marriage.

Since matters of trust and character in financial transactions play such a central role in Personal Business, permit me to observe how these issues run through both the physical book and its text. First of all, Personal Business is above all else a physical object produced to be sold to libraries and individual readers, and the author will receive only the tiniest percentage of the book's retail price. Of course, the primary economic — as opposed to intellectual or scholarly — reason for the book's existence lies in the realities of academic employment in North America that demand publications by the job applicant. As the book jacket explains, the author “is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Brown University.” In other words, Dr. Hunt does not have a permanent (or tenured) teaching position at the time of publication, and the book represents a major effort to procure one. Character — here authorial competence, trustworthiness, and originality — are therefore matters here of great importance.

Particularly trustworthiness, because in a grotesque coincidence in which Hunt could have played no conscious (or unconscious) part, she turns out to have filled the position of a former Assistant Professor removed from the Department of English on account of untrustworthiness — specifically for documented plagiarism. The university administration's actions, presumably to avoid the publicity that might be generated by a lawsuit, strikes me as something one would expect to encounter only in a satiric novel on academe, for, as the college newspaper put it (see bibliography), “After plagiarism allegations, prof. was named dean.” Not just a dean, mind you, but Associate Dean of Research. You can't make this up.

So what about another criteria, originality? A famous scientist at Dr. Hunt’s present university who garnered many honorary doctorates before he reached the age of 60 once told me that there were two basic, quite different, approaches to a scientific career. On the one hand, young scientists (and scholars) can play it safe, practicing orthodox science, and investigate what received opinion, fashionable opinion, considers to be major issues. On the other hand, they can tackle major theories head on, denying their validity and proposing an ostensibly better explanation of major questions. These novel approaches can include the very nature of a discipline or field itself. The second path, which my friend had taken, has great economic and professional risks but when successful has great rewards. The same approach to professional success holds true in the humanities and social sciences as well. Think of Harold Bloom. When I was an undergraduate everyone considered — and taught — the English Romantic poets primarily as nature poets, but Bloom convincingly argued that they were anti-nature poets, chiefly concerned with the ways nature constrains the imagination. Or, for more recent examples, take Mary Poovey or Nancy Armstrong.

Looking at Personal Business, one sees that Dr. Hunt has taken the entirely honorable orthodox path and sought to create a synthesis of the arguments of previous authors who have considered the relations of financial matters and literature in Victorian England. She finds herself responding to some major figures, particularly Mary Poovey, who has contributed four books in this field (see bibliography), and her response to her scholarly predecessors suggest much about her scholarly character. She praises Poovey's “richly researched Genres of Political Economy (14), which offers a “number of brilliant and convincing accounts of the novel’s development through character” (16), but “the elision of business scenes and genres has left a significant gap in arguments claiming the association of novelistic character, subjectivity, and bourgeois capitalist culture” (16). In other words, there's a hole in Poovey's argument that undercuts its major thesis. When the reader encounters Hunt’s high praise of an earlier scholar, one waits for the other shoe to fall, or, to mix metaphors, for the knife to descend, though she straightforwardly dispatches Deidre Lynch's “superb” Economics of Character, for the gaps in her arguments are “most palpable” (16).

Like many recent dissertations and first books, Personal Business takes an element of the historical context of a few works of literature and attempts to interrelate them. These kinds of studies can succeed in various ways, the most obvious of which involves demonstrating that a (new) knowledge of an extraliterary subject adds to our understanding of a literary work, perhaps dramatically changing received opinion and standard interpretations. Such investigations can also lead to the discovery or new understanding of a little-studied genre or author. They can also produce new knowledge of the nonliterary field, though such is quite difficult for those who come from outside a discipline. Although Personal Business does offer some interesting readings of canonical novels and introduces us to a lesser known work by Oliphant, her readings of character by themselves do not offer sufficient reason to read this book. Similarly, although her study of business biography, which is not entirely novel, both compares it to fiction and charts some changes in the latter part of the century, it doesn't either cover enough of these texts or discuss them in sufficient detail to make this an authoritative study or to convince the reader that such a study is all that valuable.

The concentration upon a very few works by different authors makes Personal Business exemplify the kind of fashionable soft history increasingly common in literary studies — “soft” because it replies upon a much small number of examples than historians would accept as a sufficient sample and also because too much of the historical context has been ignored. In this case one would like to know how many partnerships and limited liabilty corporations existed in each decade and what percentage of them failed and of those that failed what percentage resorted to bankruptcy courts and what worked matters out in more private dealings. Equally important given the book's major emphasis upon charisma and self-made men, Hunt needs at least to mention some of the many figures who fulfilled such an ideal, such as James Watt, Richard Arkwright, Robert Peel, John Sydney Crossley, and Robert Stephenson, and Thomas Telford, for otherwise the ideal of such charistmatic figures appears to have nothing to do with nineteenth-century realities. Similarly, Hunt's discussions of character, reputation, swindling, and bankruptcy would benefit greatly from some detailed explanations of swindling and resultant bankrupties thay involved the managers of a company repeatedly demanding that stockholders, who then did not have limited liability, advance additional funds until they sold shares at a great loss or forfeited them, thus allowing the managers legally to steal capital from shareholders.

This study concentrates so entirely upon the few works that dominate its discussions that it often appears unecessarily narrow, so much so that the author often creates the impression of being unaware of relevant issues in an novelists's other books. For example, in briefly discussing Hard Times, it emphasizes “attention to the maternal” (143), but this so unusual for Dickens, whose novels frequently feature weak, irresponsible, or dead mothers, supposedly because of his mother's willingness to keep him in the blacking factory, that we need some sort of comment here. Another indication of the book’s narrow focus and occasional provincialism appears in the interesting discussion of business biographies where Hunt simplistically juxtaposes realism and fantasy. A student of the Victorians, she remains provincially within nineteenth-century modes of thought, ignoring earlier uses of idealization in literature from the Neoplatonists through much of the eighteenth century. To recognize the prehistory of this aspect of business biography is to see that some popular Victorian authors self-consciously believed their purpose was to create an ideal for which people should aim rather than reporting actual lives. Does this goal imply that Victorian capitalism required an intrinsically conservative, even reactionary, aesthetic theory, or rather does it imply that to function fully capitalism demanded, as Browning's Andrea del Sarto put it, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” (a point that Dudley Johnson claimed was implicitly anti-social)? This emphasis upon idealization brings us to another rather odd omission in her discussion of Victorian discussions (and theorizations) of business — John Ruskin, whose enormously influential Unto This Last argued that merchants have their forms of heroism and sacrifice just as do soldiers.

Hunt. who generally writes with clarity, too often writes the kind of prose that seems desperate to demonstrate she knows the scholarly fashion of the last moment or two, a prose, moreover, that seems intended to drive away much of her potential audience, historians of business and students at business school or in business courses. At times her devotion to the High Academic style ends in obfuscation and and bathos. This is the kind of prose in which we encounter a “representational problematic” (not a problematic representation) and learn that Lawrence Oliphant “evacuates referentiality” (69), a prose that explains: "Within this highly wrought mesh of allusions and conventions are infrequent gestures toward a deeper mode of character" (80) This last sentence of mixed metaphors jars because it juxtaposes conflicting spatial metaphors more or less held together by “are,” which functions as a false equal sign. What is a “highly wrought mesh”? (Does she mean “complex network”?) Modes, meshes, and deeper don't seem to go together very well here. Often she had a good point to make — say, when discussing the relation of Melmotte to multiple historical figures —  but she does so in a way that manages to obscure it:

Built out of repetitions of repetitions, Melmotte is utterly familiar even as he is described in terms of absolute distinction—both the story of the moment and a story that everyone seems already to know. Melmotte, then, represents an almost exaggeratedly apt version of the nonreferentiality—or pseudo-referentiality—that Poovey suggests characterizes the breakup of the fact-fiction continuum, as literary writing becomes oriented toward a self-enclosed aesthetic formalism rather than assuming an informational role. Here is historical reference run amok—a plethora of possible factual cases that the novel "seems to, but does not, help readers understand." I would suggest, in contrast, that the problem of Melmotte's nonreferentiality (or surplus referentiality) is exactly the point of connection between the novel and its contemporary "credit economy." Melmotte's blurring of factual and fictional reference (Grant, Hudson, Sadleir, Merdle ...), his existence as a creature of stories both before and after death, cast him as a fictional case that highlights the new mode of business charisma: both full and empty, personal and impersonal, exorbitant and routine, generating power through stories that simultaneously solicit belief and disavow it. The "gestural" quality of this representation—in which an extratextual reality is pointed toward but not really elaborated—finds a parallel dynamic in the changing representation of character in commercial practice, where "character" becomes, more and more often, a gesture toward a kind ot meaning. [95]

If I understand this convoluted paragraph, Hunt's agrument goes as follows: Poovey makes the rather bizarre claim that because Melmotte follows so many actual and literary swindlers, he destroys the connections between fact and fiction; Hunt thinks he does not.

Although Personal Business certainly has its flaws, it does offer convincing readings of a few novels, introduces us to business biography, and makes many useful observations. As its footnotes demonstrate, the author has worked hard to acquaint herself with previous research on her topic. The book certainly has the flaws found in many first books, but it also suggests that the author has the potential to do fine scholarly work. We should look forward to her next book.

Sample passages from the book under review


Dubin, Michael. “After plagiarism allegations, prof. was named dean[.] Some tenured faculty members in English dept. remain troubled by U.’s handling of the matter.” The Brown Daily Herald (Thursday, April 24, 2014). Web. 28 January 2015.

Hunt, Aeron. Personal Business: Character and Commerce in Victorian Literature and Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. Pp. 225 + x.

Poovey, Mary, ed. The Financial System in Nineteenth-Century Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1003.

–––––. Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2088.

–––––. A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

–––––. "Writing about Finance in Victorian England: Disclosure and Secrecy in the Culture of Investment." In Henry and Schmitt, Victorian Investments, 59-57.

Thomas, Andy. “In Their Own Words: A Field Guide to Accused Plagiarists’ Public Statements.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. (August 5, 2014). Web. 28 January 2015..

Victorian economics Victorian authors Book Reviews

Last modified 28 January 2015