Dermot Coleman, George Eliot and Money: Economics, Ethics and Literature

Dermot Coleman, George Eliot and Money: Economics, Ethics and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2014) vii + 226 pp. $20.00 PDF, £20.00 Pb, £57.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107057210

Dermot Coleman introduces George Eliot and Money: Economics, Ethics and Literature with the reminder that history contains powerful lessons for those willing to heed them. Rather self-deprecatingly, he recounts how neglect of this lesson meant that he, like so many others, did not anticipate the 2007–2008 financial crisis in the US, as precipitated by the overexpansion of lending in the sub-prime mortgage market. This failure in foresight occurred despite his knowledge of nineteenth-century economic history: the experience of (historically-extrapolated) déjà vu is neatly encapsulated in a citation describing the causes of the 1857 banking crisis that, from our vantage point, replicates almost exactly the unfolding process of the recent crash. This anecdote serves as a taster for the effect of the whole: Coleman’s monograph frequently evokes and explicitly draws on a sense of uncanny parity to collapse the distance between us and the Victorians, presenting an ongoing balancing act between economics and ethical action: ‘financial crisis and attendant economic disruption occurred frequently […] This pattern created an uncertainty that framed Victorian debates on the nature of wealth as surely as the current economic turmoil has brought into increasing prominence questions of individual, social and corporate responsibility’ (2).

The position of the author fits within this overarching dynamic; just as Coleman draws on experience gained through founding an investment management business in the late 1990s to re-address the ethos and motivations underlying George Eliot’s fiction, so too does Eliot’s own writing provide a means to evaluate and interrogate the ‘developing money economy’ (2) of the nineteenth century. Coleman builds on the work of previous critics such as Patrick Brantlinger, Eleanor Courtemanche, Regenia Gagnier, Catherine Gallagher, Deanna Kreisal, and Mary Poovey to push understandings of the relation between literature and economics beyond the ideological fighting ground of more traditional criticism. The two questions central to his enquiry are ‘how did Eliot conceptualise economic value within her broader individual and social ethics?’, and ‘how was the integration of economic and wider “good” tested and measured within the novels?’ (9).

In order to address these questions Coleman combines extensive research with perceptive attention to literary detail. He begins with a biographical account of Eliot’s own economic history and her shifting financial status (attending to the moral quagmire of commercial success versus ethical aesthetics), before moving onto analysis of the novels; the final two chapters allow for a more general interrogation of Eliot’s non-fiction prose and look forward to the new liberalism of the nineteenth century’s latter decades. While this structure does mean that there is some repetition (Coleman acknowledges that his early chapters ‘lay foundations’ for later themes and arguments [9]), it also facilitates the continual tracing of connections between Eliot’s sympathetic and intellectual attention to economic, political, and sociological theory, the effects of rapidly accumulating wealth on her status as an author, and the impetus of her novels to utilise but also reveal the inadequacies of unyielding economic systems. Despite her allegiance to John Stuart Mill, the principles of Utilitarian ethics are exposed as insufficient in Felix Holt, while Middlemarch allows for a negotiation between Utilitarianism and a Kantian universality, to express not only an ambivalence to both, but also to seek links between moral motive and economic principles. Summing up the difficulties of pinning her position down, Coleman writes: ‘her syncretic mind defies categorisation within a single ethical system’ (88).

This is an elegantly written book, that is undoubtedly an important contribution to Eliot scholarship; as Coleman notes (with the exception of Alexander Welsh’s more broad-ranging George Eliot and Blackmail), there has been ‘no single major Eliot study with an explicitly economic theme’ (7). The literary analyses demonstrate a beguiling balance of pithy observation – Daniel Deronda’s Gwendolen Harleth and Catherine Arrowpoint, though polarised in morality, are both determined not to marry for money (121) – with detailed examination of broader motivations and political impulses: Dorothea Casaubon’s turn from the impartial ‘greater good’ spread of her philanthropy to offering personal assistance to Farebrother and Lydgate signals her emotional and intellectual release; Kantian rationalisation fails to account for the pathological effect of the money economy, specifically how the billiard room physiologically impacts on Lydgate. It is in Daniel Deronda that Coleman suggests Eliot’s resistance to rule-bound philosophical and economic systems, and ‘the cultural possibilities of incorporating the economic within a wider sphere of virtues to inform individual action’ (122), are most fully realised, revealing a ‘particular set of economic issues which still resonate strongly today’ (113). The association between the personal, biological or intellectual, and the economic appears again: Coleman indicates that it is Daniel’s eventual discovery of his Jewish inheritance that enables him to approach his financial inheritance with decisive action. These intriguing hints about a broader link between psychological, corporeal, and economic autonomy could have been spelled out with a more definitive hypothesis, although this is perhaps another project.

Coleman’s book ends as neatly as it begins. He provides two appendices to further evidence his own rigorous scholarship and to instigate independent investigation on behalf of the reader. Appendix A contains details of George Eliot’s final stock portfolio, from 1880. This clarifies Eliot’s considerable wealth – as Coleman points out, by the time of her death, Eliot’s investments alone provided an annual income of more than £1000­ – yet also makes for an informative and illuminating survey. For instance, Eliot invested significantly more in Canals and Docks and less in Railways and Banks than the market average; we also know from Coleman that she was an active decision-maker in her acquisitions and that her abhorrence to debt and speculation reverberates throughout her fiction, from Lydgate’s downfall to the repeating gambling scenes and metaphors of Daniel Deronda. Appendix B presents an interrogation into whether The Mill on the Floss’s Edward Tulliver (undone by an excess of compassion and a deficiency of intellectual sense) was actually ‘declared bankrupt’, as his children, Maggie and Tom, assume. While slightly tongue-in-cheek, Coleman’s scrupulous detection work nevertheless testifies to the fact that Eliot’s own intellectual grasp of her subject, and her awareness of the ramifications that economics had on the social and familial relations in which her fiction is so invested, more than stand the test of time.

Harriet Newnes, Lancaster University