Romanticism, Forgery and the Credit Crisis
"Emma and Bank Bills: Forgery and Romanticism"
University of Victoria
1. Reviewing Austen’s Emma Walter Scott sums up the denouement like this:
2. The term “social imaginary” derives from Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries. Taylor’s ultimate aim in this book is to substantiate his thesis that we had best speak of multiple modernities rather than a single, uniform one; that pace the World Bank, putting in place a modern economy is not simply a matter of pulling on the usual policy levers. In each culture a unique social imaginary is at work, producing inevitable difference. The social imaginary refers to the way—analogous to Benedict Anderson and communities—we imagine a moral order, including that which legitimates it. Taylor aims to reveal the historical uniqueness of the social imaginary of the West over the last four hundred years, to those of us who live within it, where our social imaginary has become second nature, and unless prodded into introspection, invisible.
3. The broad transition Taylor has in mind, is from “Platonic-modeled orders of hierarchical complementarity” to a contingent model whose “two main ends, security and prosperity, are now the principal goals of organized society (12, 13-14). In contradistinction to the former, “the modern order gives no ontological status to hierarchy or any particular structure of differentiation” (12). Taylor refers to modern liberalism rising from the natural law theories of Grotius and Locke, to the imagining of societies composed of equal free agents who pool sovereignty in order to advance individual goals, en masse. We tend to think of such individualism as inherently atomistic, but as Taylor notes, in its original conception private ends and public goods found themselves in a balanced, productive tension, as it is only through the latter (including, notably, security) that the former may be realized.
4. If one were thinking of the modern, Western, moral order as a system, it would be “structuralist” in that no element would have an a priori meaning, but gains significance as it furthers or hinders the ultimate goals of prosperity and security. Originally the preserve of a few philosophers, the ideas underlying the modern Western order migrate “from one niche to many, and from moral theory to social imaginary” (6). However, remarkably, a third axis is at work. Summing up his distinctions, Taylor notes “that an idea of moral or political order can either be ultimate”, as in eschatology, “or for the here and now, and if the latter, it can either be hermeneutic or prescriptive” (7). The modern idea of order begins as a hermeneutic inquiry into the origin and nature of the “unquestioned legitimacy” underlying governments. But over time the “hermeneutic of legitimation” found in natural law theory travels along its axis towards prescription, so that notions of fundamental equality between social agents and the consensual nature of legitimacy become ethical constraints, taking on revolutionary force in the process.
5. Taylor employs the term “social imaginary” because he wants to avoid the idealist pitfalls of “culture” and “ideology”, both of which he sees as covertly teleological. His definition is worth attending to:
6. The Romantic era looms large in all of Taylor’s many accounts of the history of the instantiation of what is now a salient aspect of our social imaginary, something we familiarly know as the “economy“.  For Taylor it is a period of late transition and early consolidation, and therefore Janus faced. Thus Emma, which contains at once “hierarchical complementarity” and the new moral order of equal acquisitive agents, a tension comically evident, as we shall discover, in Emma’s transparent snobbery. So when I say that in Emma suspicions attaching to readily-endorsed bank bills ramify within a newly shaped “social imaginary”, I mean a process that goes very deep.
7. The point can be illustrated through an argument Lynn Hunt makes about how, for the population at large, the French Revolution was mediated through the family romance (Hunt). Prior to the Revolution the king was commonly regarded as the father of the nation; by the same token his subjects were his children. The point Hunt stresses is that within the social imaginary the relationship pulsed with literal, rather than figurative, force.
8. Within the Pre-Revolutionary mentality, legitimacy was a concrete affair, insofar as it could be materialized as blood. The shift to thinking of citizenship and state legitimacy in abstract terms, as matters of universal principles and rights, or, indeed, as the expression of Rousseau’s “general will”, was, indeed, revolutionary. In support of her argument Hunt provides evidence of the profound disorientation of the common citizenry, who felt bereft, indeed “orphaned”, by the king’s execution; they had severed connections with a visible “father”, and were now at sea with a host of abstractions. In Taylor’s terms the transition was from a previous model of “hierarchical complementarity”, concretely instantiated in the king’s body, haloed by an ontological investment, to a new order predicated on the universal human rights of equality, security and prosperity, so that we may concur with Saree Makdisi who argues, along with Burke, that Jacobins were the advanced guard of economic liberalism (Makdisi). The point of introducing Hunt’s perspective, is that it cues us into what this crisis in the social imaginary meant at the level of narrative: an explosion of stories of families and fathers, rebellions and repressions, unities and disunities, in which the paternal figure was divested of its ontological aura through the father’s endlessly repeated symbolic decapitation in the Gothic plots of the Minerva school; plots turning on sons and daughters somehow prevailing in their quest to marry in accordance with their emotional needs, rather than the family’s dynastic ambitions (Miles 2002). In Freudian terms, it’s as if contemporary readers administered their own talking cure, vicariously experienced through endless symbolic repetitions of the new order’s primal scene where abstract right was conceived (in the daughter’s stubborn adherence to her love), and the king’s body dispatched (in the father’s failure to impose his will), the whole psychomachia mediated through the cultural debris of an exploded feudal system.
9. I want to argue that the change in the social imaginary attendant upon the suspension of cash payments was equally far reaching, as value lost its concrete embodiments in favour of abstract promises: where there used to be stamped portions of precious metal, there were now paper bank notes unsecured by specie. This was hardly a phenomenon anyone could have missed, who lived through it. Prior to the suspension country banks were prohibited from issuing notes smaller than five pounds, while the Bank of England had none smaller than ten. According to John Clapham’s history of the Bank of England, up until 1797 “Englishmen of the rank and file—wage-earners and small traders—knew little of paper money” (Clapham 2-3). Over a period of twenty years paper or its substitutes replaced traditional coins: “Gradually the age became one of bank notes and tradesmen’s tokens and Spanish dollars stamped with the head of King George III and put into circulation by the Bank in England” (Clapham, 4). There was an explosion of country banks, made possible by the relaxation in the rules governing the supply of money (an explosion involving Austen’s brother, Henry). The surge in the supply of money was in turn linked to a rapid cycle of boom and bust, of speculative fevers momentarily cured by bone-numbing recessions. The journals were filled with the “bullion controversy”—with the first finest hour of the dismal science, as it came to grips, conceptually, with the underlying causes of boom and bust, “inflation” and “deflation” (as yet, not the common currency of economic discussion). Meanwhile, the suspension was a forger’s charter. When bank notes were of large denomination, counterfeiting was difficult, as palming-off a dodgy note was an act you did up close and personal: only with the emergence of small notes in common and daily use could you anonymously slip them into circulation, and then disappear; hence, as Ian Haywood explains, the draconian practice of stringing up any unfortunate wretch insufficiently eagle-eyed to catch the minute signs of the counterfeiter’s art.  Before special paper, with unreproducible water-marks (let alone holograms) counterfeiters were on the whole even more skilled than their engraving counterparts in the treasury; and whatever the treasury could do, as regards intricate patterns and secret signs, the counterfeiters could do as well, if not better (Dick, 389). Hence one of the more unlikely public movements of the age: the societies forming for the prevention of the wholesale hanging of market-traders caught with bent bills.
10. Romanticism—at any rate, Romantic ideology—may be understood as the dream of achieving permanent or transcendent value against a background of value rendered radically unstable and contested (McGann). In this respect forgery signifies the possibility of the endemic instability that fed the transcendental desires that peculiarly distinguish Romanticism. Although this is a version of the familiar story told about Romanticism—a story about the rise of secularization, with temporal theories of value replacing atemporal ones—the constitutive role of the bullion controversy (with its concomitant ills, such as the forgery epidemic) as a necessary condition for the historical rise of Romanticism has only recently been directly addressed, for example in Mary Poovey’s Genres of the Credit Economy, and in Alex Dick’s forthcoming Realms of Gold: British Romanticism and the Standard of Value.
11. My aim is not to change prevailing notions of Romanticism so much as it is to change prevailing notions of forgery in relation to it, from forgery as Romanticism’s dark other (an expression of the critical imaginary understandably present in, for instance, Nick Groom’s ground-breaking 1994 issue of Angelaki devoted to the subject) to forgery as a logically necessary constituent of Romanticism. In effect I am positing the interchangeability of two systems of value: the aesthetic, and the economic (see Thompson). As disciplines, or fields, aesthetics and economics both famously come into being (as regards their modern shape) around the same time: think, for instance, of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) and Lord Kames' The Elements of Criticism (1762). Each needs the other, to think itself into being.
12. The hinge, linking the two systems, is forgery. In recent years there has been a great deal of critical interest in the history of literary forgery, an interest K.K. Ruthven links to “two intellectual developments in the final decades of the twentieth century”: “post-structuralist critical theory” and the “continuing anatomy of . . . 'the postmodern condition'“. The first forced a rethinking of traditional assumptions about “authorship, originality, authenticity and value” while the second fundamentally undermined commonsense apprehensions of the real and the simulated (Ruthven, 63). The eighteenth-century habit of positing the ideal of “original genius” axiomatically produced the allied condition of anxiety about its failure, which is to say, fakery, or, where it was with malice prepense, forgery. Post-structuralist critical theory certainly pounced on this hare, once set running; my aim, rather, is to take us back to a moment where a linkage was made, that now seems self-evident, but was hardly so at the time: the linkage, that is, between forgery in its dominant figurative sense (the unauthorized replication of bank notes), and a secondary one: the unauthorized replication of literary property. Originally a forger was simply a metal-basher, and forgery “the action or craft of forging metal”. So what connects the innocent act of making something (a poem, say, attributed to a long-dead poet), with the criminal act of counterfeiting bank bills? Blackstone in his Commentaries (1769) appears to provide an answer: “the fraudulent making or alteration of a writing to the prejudice of another man’s right.”  Prior to the suspension of 1797, most forged bills were to the detriment of a named individual, fraudulently endorsed (rather than to a faceless bank). Blackstone’s legal definition stretches to encompass both robbery through counterfeit bank notes, and the theft of literary property though imposition; both the Reverend Dodds, and Chatterton. But of course, only Dodds was stretched, and not just because Chatterton checked out early. The famous cases of literary forgery in the eighteenth century did not involve infringements of copyright “to the prejudice of another man’s right”. Rowley’s poems not having been previously published, the copyright could not have been snapped up by a publisher, so none was injured. The same was true of Ireland’s Shakespeare forgeries, where the worst that could be said, was that Ireland had trampled on Shakespeare’s “moral rights”, as later iterations of the copyright law would come to call the right of not having one’s work traduced, and its brand tarnished, by fraudsters; but in the 1790’s this concept lay in the future. When Horace Walpole famously claimed that all inmates of the house of forgery were relations, he was the one doing the stretching (see Baines). The circle he was drawing, was greatly in excess of what was then logically, or legally, possible. We do well to listen to natural contrarians, such as Cobbett, who is here righteously tearing strips off the fools who rounded on W. H. Ireland, once his ingenuity as a Shakespeare-basher was revealed:
13. One could say that mine is a secularization argument; that the late Enlightenment throws us into a state of irony, contingency, and subjectivity; and the hinged relationship between numismatic and literary forgery is just another indication that we are in the free-floating realm of shifting values. But I prefer to put it like this: the suspension of cash payments ushered in a period in which the modern economic cycle first began to intensify, a period, that is, of rapid capital growth, speculation, and savage retrenchments; it was one where paper replaced metal as common, circulating tokens of value; and where the economic discourse of value (on why, for instance, gold and silver have value in the first place: the common answer looping back to the scarcity-value attendant upon the limits of South American mines and the labour that worked them) infiltrates other discursive systems of value. All three developments altered the social imaginary, not least through the pervasive example of economic agents rising and falling, as the economy booms and busts, along with the allied lesson that the modern moral order presupposes deep interconnection and dependence. And I put it like that, because it is the best way of understanding something really peculiar about Jane Austen’s Emma.
14. And that is, that Emma is a deeply meditated work on the same interpenetration of literary and economic systems of value that we found in Cobbett’s analysis of Ireland’s persecution. We can start with the fact that Highbury is sixteen miles South of London, in Surrey—insofar as Austen had a location in mind, it was Leatherhead, the epicentre of what is now the stockbroker belt. The obvious point—for contemporary readers, screamingly so—is that the Woodhouses are rentiers.  In the following passage, the humour is very broad indeed. Emma is wondering to herself about what could have possessed Mr. Elton into imagining himself her equal:
15. Of course stock-jobbers and kindred scoundrels are always trying to cash-out: as the current joke has it, they made off, like Madoff. The eighteenth-century had their own word for the phenomenon: “realise”. Here is the OED defining the word:
16. How broad is the irony? “. . .his share of the family property . . . is . . . all afloat, all employed in his stock”. Note the pun on stock (obviously livestock, but also the financial variety). The pun develops the double meaning of Robert Martin as a high farmer (a passion he incidentally shares with Mr. Knightley), but it also brings out this latent irony: Emma is talking as the very thing she is: a speculator, who is, herself, the daughter of speculators (that is, business people), who have realised themselves, having cashed out.
17. The novel has a word for this conjunction of the two senses of speculation: Emma, we are told, is an “imaginist...on fire with speculation and foresight!” (295). The conjunction is also evident in the novel’s core plot device, where Emma speculates on Harriet Smith’s origin. Emma prefers romance (Harriet is the natural daughter of a Merchant Prince, or Whig Grandee, someone, ideally, combining both nobility and wealth, so “bleaching” the stain of her dodgy origin ), but has to learn novelistic realism (Harriet’s father is a tradesman decent enough to remain anonymous). In its sly way, Emma is also a novel about novel-writing. As someone who speculates, and predicts marriage, Emma is linked—at least theoretically—with the main business of the novel, of narrating marriage. When she takes on her protégé, Harriet Smith, the theoretical point becomes practical: in developing Harriet, Emma speculates through the medium of romance conventions, much as Catherine Morland does. She views the world through the prism of the wrong kind of novels. At the same time, the Harriet Smith romance encapsulates the main fear of Tory ideology: that feckless, irresponsible, illegitimate capital (engendered in the City) will be set lose to circulate freely, transforming the shires, by turning the social order upside down. With this allegorical dimension in mind, the gypsy episode is ironically inverted: the real menace, is not the raggedy offspring of a few tinkers, but Harriet Smith, the ambulatory bank note, the daughter of God-knows-who, who promises capital transformation (in Emma’s speculation), a threat further ironically intensified given the hero’s association with the Churchills. Frank Churchill, who gallantly disperses the gypsies, is the adopted son of the self-same class of Whig nabobs who are the putative parents of illegitimate Harriet. Where legitimacy is defined by land, a form of property where the social contract (of obligations and responsibilities, as well as privilege) is legible to all, capital has the taint of illegitimacy, or irresponsible pleasure. Frank himself generates the hugger-mugger Tory ideologues typically associated with large city fortunes. In other words, Emma reprises the plot of Northanger Abbey where a romance-addled heroine is unable to recognize the very thing that obsesses her when it’s in front of her face: in Emma’s case, the perils of new (City) money and marriage across class lines. Even as she spurns the Coles, as socially illegitimate new money, she promotes Harriet (its epitome).
18. One could argue that Harriet is a counterfeit banknote, in that she is, from Emma’s perspective, a “fake”, but that is taking the allegory too far. The point, rather, is that two competing discourses inhabit the same space in the novel, and through the punning capacity of language, often the same words. You can try the experiment. Get an e-text of the novel and plug in “resources”, “speculate”, “improve”, “stock”, “credit”, “realize”: the terms recur, pointedly. The competing discourses are drawn from aesthetics and economics, where the correction of one kind of speculation (the economic) is linked to the improvement of another (novel-writing).
19. Austen’s fascination with the dismal science arguably pervades her work, but most notably Emma, Mansfield Park, and Sanditon. It is not a sign of her famed Enlightenment realism; rather, it is where she is at her most Romantic, for it is through her economic interests that she finds a language for exploring a world where value is inescapably contingent. Contingent value is not thematized in her novels—rather it is part of the web-and-woof of a social imaginary that in a manner of speaking thinks itself out through the medium of her novels.
20. I want to conclude by considering the aspect of the novel that most severely tries my interpretation: the idealization of Knightley and Donwell Abbey. The marriage between Emma and Knightley repairs the “notch” in the latter’s property, making it whole again, while her thirty thousand pounds is safely placed in the service of an ancient estate, the pinnacle of a “well-connected” community presumably stretching back to the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries. In his brisk pedestrianism, frugal habits, and active concern for all the “citizens of Highbury”, Knightley appears to be the embodiment of the responsible, enlivening spirit that draws the community together, transforming it (through self-regulation) into a living example of the Tory ideal. Emma’s epiphany, when she strolls around Knightley’s grounds, as she escapes the wretched Mrs. Elton and her inane mercantile chatter, appears Austen’s own, ventriloquized by Edmund Burke: “It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive” (315). At the heart of this glorious, organic, vital media is a crucial representation of social relation: “The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it” (315). Knightley, and Robert Martin, the Abbey and the Abbey-Mill farm, seem chthonically present, as if spontaneously grown from the sinuous earth, as close as one can get, in a realist novel, to an instantiation of the ontic force of “hierarchical complementarity”. On this reading, the mysterious power that makes the English home counties the home counties of England, and nowhere else—continuous across space and time, a unique identity enduring through the aeons—is made manifest in the novel as the healing force that repairs notches in ancient estates, excludes frightful sorts like the Eltons, while lodging dangerous females (wild imaginists and ambulatory banknotes alike) snugly within the confines of appropriate marriages.
21. This “heritage” fantasy is indisputably at work in the novel, but it works as one pole in irresolvable tension with another reality, of independent, and equal, economic actors, engaged in a mutual-aid society, as they seek to prosper in giddy financial times. For if Emma was written at a time of faltering boom, it was quickly followed by a spectacular bust.  Hence the stress on what Robert Martin and George Knightley have in common: an insatiable appetite for “information”, especially information relating to “improvement”—another of the novel’s key terms. “Improvement” resonates ironically in the text, as the watch word of enclosures, engrossments, and the capital transformation of land at a time of rising prices and rents: it’s what Robert Martin does with his sheep, and other farmers with oxen, and what Emma does with Harriet, even as Mr. Knightley wishes that Emma would exert more effort in her own reading, to improve herself. When Mr. Knightley says he can as “ill spare Robert Martin” (397) as his canny steward, William Larkins, he means, not the umbilical connection of master and tenant farmer, but a collaborator in their joint project of improving their lands and profits. The social imaginary in which Emma ramifies, is a modern one of equal, mutually dependent actors where the older moral outlook exists as an outdated cast of mind satirized through Emma’s snobbery, and as an idealization ironically presented as just that: the era of “gold standards” has passed, and ever-shifting relation ushered in. As Alex Dick notes, the “gold standard” was first conceptualized in the course of the bullion controversy, at which point it was retrospectively projected onto the past, onto the era preceding the suspension of cash-payments in 1797, as a fantasy of origin. 
22. J.G.A. Pocock influentially argued that the rise of a polite and commercial society in the eighteenth century eclipsed the mentality in which land was automatically assumed to be the proper source of wealth and the true foundation of political legitimacy.  But as Beth Tobin notes, although this ideal had waned, it began to wax after the post-Waterloo economic crash as an ideological defence of the corn laws that were used to prop up farming prices, thus ensuring the continued pre-eminence of “land” in the British social imaginary (Tobin, 249). At this juncture the ideological formation assumed its modern form: the Tory ideal of the “knights of the shires” as the true pillars of English society. Emma puts both things in play: the fantasy (the gold standard of “land”; Donwell Abbey; the immutabilities of rank) and its opposite (contingency; the stockbroker belt; permeable class). It is in this tension that Austen finds her Romantic irony.
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Tobin, Beth Fowkes. "The Moral and Political Economy of Property in Austen’s Emma." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 2.3 (1990): 234-35. Print.
 Beth Tobin speculates that the Woodhouse fortune “was most likely made by someone who retired to Highbury, not far from London and its money market, where he could have bought and sold stocks in corporations and colonialist ventures like the East India or South Seas Companies, or lent money to the government for William III’s and Anne’s wars” (Tobin 238). BACK
 For instance, in 1815, Thomas Malthus observed that there had been "a great consequent extension of cultivation and improvement," especially over the last seven years: "the system of spirited improvement and high farming, as it is technically called, has been principally encouraged by the progressive rise of prices..." (Quoted Anon 1815, 493). BACK