The guiding claim of Matthew Rowlinson’s Real Money and Romanticism is that literary historians have overlooked the ways in which “British literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was shaped by changes in the economic structure of the publishing industry and the commodity status of intellectual property” (32). Rowlinson’s objective is to develop a new understanding of the connections between Romantic authors, print culture, and capital as each was changing during this tumultuous period. While much good work has been done on the economics of Romantic literature, Rowlinson’s approach departs from predecessors such as William St. Clair and Lee Erikson. His critical lexicon and methodology are primarily derived from Marx’s Capital (and reactions against Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations), with informing ideas from Marcel Mauss and Jacques Lacan. The works that receive this theoretically-charged critique include Scott’s Waverly novels (particularly Guy Mannering and The Antiquary), Keats’s “Fall of Hyperion,” and Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. One of these things is not like the other: Rowlinson includes Dickens in his broadened Romanticism as a writer who “acutely experienced” this “period of rapid change in the monetary system, in the British economy at large, and in the publishing trade” (32).
What Rowlinson calls “real money” focuses the opening two chapters. In the first, he develops a complex definition of money: drawing on the “chartalist” neo-Keynsian theories of Randall Wray, Rowlinson understands money as a circulation of “tokens representing debt” (8). From here, he builds on Mauss’s theories of gift-giving and Lacan’s concept of the Symbolic order to separate the physical body and commodity-exchange value of money from its sublime body, which he casts as a “kernel of rationality at the signifier’s heart” (30). This conceptualization of real money, Rowlinson argues, led Romantic-era authors to involve themselves in new and increasingly complex “relations of trust and symbolic identification” when making transactions, provoking anxieties about money which pervade many of the period’s works (32). A brief but detailed history of money in Britain follows in the second chapter, in which Rowlinson charts the shifts from gold and silver to bills and finally—in the context of a national crisis—to banknotes. Turning to Marx, Rowlinson questions the dominant narrative of The Suspension of Payments order of 1797. By charting this crisis’s history, and challenging Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s view of productive labor, Rowlinson argues that while utterance—variously, of debt, creativity, or work—could be transformed into many forms of the pound, “none of them, however, could be viewed as embodying the pound itself” (54). Together with his earlier chapter on real money, Rowlinson here offers a convincing, theoretically complex conception of an abstract and sublime body operative within money itself.
While Rowlinson’s literary purview may seem limited—three novels and one poem—he makes good use of the material he studies. The final chapters study Scott, Keats, and Dickens through an inquiry into the economics of literature. Rowlinson’s careful readings include a wide range literary and theoretical reference, but as in his earlier Tennyson’s Fixations (1994), he is at his best in close readings of literary works. The most robust of these comes in Chapter Five, “Reading capital with Little Nell.” Rowlinson begins the chapter by focusing on the commercial development of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. He argues that Dickens’s negotiations with his publishers commodified the piece as capital as it was being written. This historical discussion helps lead readers to Rowlinson’s central argument: within The Old Curiosity Shop, the virginally embodied Nell, “together with the insistent materiality of the curiosity shop and the miser’s hoard, [is] the central allegorization of the impossible materiality of money” (188). Rowlinson earns this claim through a well-plotted chapter peppered throughout with ingenious readings of Dickens.