Alexander Dick, Romanticism and the Gold Standard: Money, Literature and Economic Debate in Britain 1790-1830

Alexander Dick, Romanticism and the Gold Standard: Money, Literature and Economic Debate in Britain 1790-1830 (Houndmills: Palgrave 2013). 280 pp. £55 Hb, EPub, PDF. ISBN 978-1-137-29293-3

Until recently, scholarship on Romanticism’s relationship with economic and monetary issues has only scantly been addressed, since it has been considered a topic with which the Romantics themselves had little engagement, and indeed in which they had little interest. Alexander Dick’s Romanticism and the Gold Standard encourages a reassessment of the intellectual environment of the Romantic Period in this respect. His monograph significantly contributes to interdisciplinary discourse on the Romantics as it looks deeply into the integration of commerce and literary thought, considering their mutually influencing relationship in addition to metaphysical questions about individuality and social identity. By exploring the historical contexts surrounding ‘The Bullion Controversy’ (36-73), the name which has been given to the marketplace turmoil following Britain’s 1816 declaration of its reversion to the gold standard, and issues related to class, religion, and morality, Dick has created a definitive work of literary historiography that sheds light on the complex socio-political and economic environment of Victorian Britain.

The endeavour to arrive at a system of valuation by which Britain could regulate commerce and thus create an ‘economic establishment’ engendered heated debate that extended from the House of Commons to the drawing rooms of the most prominent literary figures of the time, including Coleridge, Wordsworth, Scott, and Austen (12). As Britain made a transition from the economic world of the seventeenth century, whose conception of intrinsic value was based on ‘feudal ideas of proprietorship and stewardship’, into that of the eighteenth century, characterized by a more professional, objective administration, the struggle to determine what exactly value was and how it could be standardized increased (4). Dick addresses these dynamic issues by drawing attention to the Smithian notion that ‘understanding money means situating oneself within the flow of exchange and thus comprehending its vicissitudes rather than adapting definitions and associations from outside’ (65). Dick’s work endeavours to do just this. Driven by the assertion that the idea of a ‘standard’ was in and of itself symbolic, economists, philosophers and authors alike strove to exert their persuasive force in order to stabilize an uncertain consumer market. A distinctive feature of Dick’s work is his establishment of a relationship between poets, pamphleteers, and novelists, focusing on the ‘confidence’ and ‘embarrassment’ that arose following the suspension of cash payments in 1797 and the ensuing debates over the legitimacy of the gold standard (17-26).

Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats stand at the forefront of Dick’s analysis of the literary treatment of economic issues within the world of the Romantics.  While differing on most political issues, these Romantics perceived a value in the poetic assessment of the economy, believing poetry offered a more accurate and authentic means of understanding. As Dick argues, the Romantics’ engagement with economic debate is indicative of ‘experiments with self-conscious modes of poetic failure and collapse,’ and ‘reformulates Shelleyan confidence into a new dynamic of aesthetic embarrassment’ (111). Coleridge’s defence of the National Debt in his Lay Sermons, Keats’s poetic endeavours to ground the legitimacy of the gold standard in imagined classical and Renaissance pasts, as well as the sophisticated understanding of financial systems demonstrated in Shelley's poems, contribute to Dick’s assessment of the relationship between poetry and socio-economic progress.

The need to reconcile the ‘increasingly divergent interests of the professional landed, and working classes' (73) complicated the establishment of a new standard, giving rise to a cultural tension expressed by reflection on the structure of the Victorian class system and the social implications of industrialisation.  Growing concerns over workers' well-being, and agricultural and industrial conditions, required a reassessment of previous socio-economic models, posing the question of what Britain would look like under a new standard (73). As Dick points out, religion played a key role in formulating perceptions and modes of interaction with money. With a considerable portion of the population gaining their understanding of the monetary system from sermons and proverbs, questions of morality became intrinsic to Britain’s issues of economic regulation. The growth of counterfeit bill production and an increasing circulation of unstable banknotes not only raised profound issues of how exactly currency was to be valued, but also highlighted the moral gravity of economic fraud and the seriousness of its punishment (at times by execution). Dick’s careful correlation of ethical, economic, and social debates demonstrates the broader theoretical implications of the valuation of standards and the interdisciplinary relevance of such discourse.

In the final chapter of Romanticism and the Gold Standard, Dick addresses increasingly popular contemporary critical debates surrounding nationhood and antiquarianism in economic and literary circles. Though this critical conversation is limited primarily to the works of Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen, its framing within the political environment constructs a genre of literature that is self-conscious and highly critical. Dick explores novels such as Scott’s Rob Roy and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as sites that examine the links between notions of national identity, personal independence, and economic sustainability.

In his extensive consideration of the relationship between political economy and aesthetics Dick brings together a compelling variety of resources. His exploration of the relationship between literary authors such as Shelley, Byron, Keats, Hunt, and Peacock and economic texts such as Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation and Malthus’s On the Corn Laws, demonstrates the usefulness of a broadened conception of Romantic studies. The diversity of subjects which are addressed is a testament to the complexity and rapidly changing nature of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century opinions regarding the necessity and valuation of an economic standard.  In all, Romanticism and the Gold Standard offers a reflective and compelling analysis of the Romantics’ involvement with debates surrounding the standardisation of currency, offering valuable contributions to scholarship in its field as well as providing avenues for new research.

Ashley Somogyi, Durham University