Romances of Free Trade: British Literature, Laissez-Faire, and the Global Nineteenth Century

Romances of Free Trade: British Literature, Laissez-Faire, and the Global Nineteenth Century

Romances of Free Trade: British Literature, Laissez-Faire, and the Global Nineteenth Century

Romances of Free Trade: British Literature, Laissez-Faire, and the Global Nineteenth Century

Synopsis

Exploring works by Walter Scott, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and their lesser-known contemporaries, Romances of Free Trade historicizes globalization as it traces the perception of dissolving borders and declining national sovereignty back into the nineteenth century.

The book offers a new account of the cultural work of romance in nineteenth-century Britain. Celikkol argues that novelists and playwrights employed this genre to represent a radically new historical formation: the emergence of a globalized free-market economy. In previous centuries, the British state had pursued an economic policy that chose domestic goods over foreign ones. Through the first half of the nineteenth century, liberal economists maintained that commodity traffic across national borders should move outside the purview of the state, a position and practice that began to take hold as the century progressed. Amid the transformation, Britons pondered the vertiginous effects of rapidly accelerating economic circulation. Would patriotic attachment to the homeland dissolve along with the preference for domestic goods? How would the nation and the empire fare if commerce became uncontrollable? The literary genre of romance, characterized by protagonists who drift in lawless spaces, played a meaningful role in addressing such pressing questions. From the figure of the smuggler to the episodic plot structure, romance elements in fiction and drama narrated and made tangible the sprawling global markets and fluid capital that were reshaping the world.

In addition to clear-eyed close readings of nineteenth-century novels and plays, Celikkol draws on the era's major economic theorists, figures like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, to vividly illustrate the manifold ways the romance genre engaged with these emerging financial changes.

Excerpt

To portray the population of ones own country as criminal is quite audacious, but that is precisely what the popular British novelist G. P. R. James did in 1845 when he published The Smuggler, a historical novel in which the public voraciously consumes contraband goods. James promised to offer a “correct picture of the state of society” in the late eighteenth century:

Scarcely any one of the maritime countries was, in those days, without its gang
of smugglers; for if France was not opposite, Holland was not far off; and if
brandy was not the object, nor silk, nor wine, yet tea and cinnamon, and hol
lands… were things duly estimated by the British public, especially when they
could be obtained without the payment of custom-house duties.

This portrayal may initially appear to be an artless meditation on bygone days, but in fact it comments on the economic transformation that was taking place in Jamess own time. What the opinionated narrator condemns throughout The Smuggler— obtaining foreign goods without the payment of customs duties—was becoming legal when James composed the novel. in the first half of the nineteenth century, liberal economists in Britain insisted that imports should not be subject to high duties or tariffs. the economic system that they proposed limited the states ability to control commodity traffic across national borders and appeared to threaten sovereignty for this reason.

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