Deidre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning.

Monday, November 15, 1999 - 03:16
Deidre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xiv + 318pp. illus. $45.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-226-49819-0). $18.00 (Pap; ISBN: 0-226-49820-4).

Reviewed by
John O'Brien
University of Virginia

Deidre Lynch's study of how eighteenth-century British culture imagined the concept of character recovers a mostly-forgotten mode of reading and understanding, one in which outsides rather than insides, objects rather than subjects occupy the center of critical attention. Deftly showing how early eighteenth-century readers typically apprehended "the ethical, the physiognomic, the typographic, and even the numismatic" meanings of the term character all at once (30), Lynch persuasively recasts the history of literary conventions as a history of changing reading practices in a culture that was being transformed by the expansion of market relationships into every domain. By disaggregating her account of the eighteenth century's transformation of reading protocols from either the history of the novel form or the history of the individual subject, Lynch offers a clear alternative—and a challenge—to teleological and post-Romantic approaches to literary character. Marshaling an impressive range of literary and historical evidence, Lynch describes how character-writing gained new purpose by the end of the eighteenth century by becoming, in the genre of the novel of manners, the site where readers could go to learn about how to develop distinctive characters of their own.

In the first part of her study, Lynch reconstructs an early eighteenth-century understanding of character that is relentlessly materialist: characters as "reading matter" in the strictest possible sense. Ranging widely across fictional, critical, philosophical, and other discourses, Lynch demonstrates how readers in this period assessed literary characters not so much on the basis of the depths of their psyches as on the quality of the impression they make, the legibility of the physical marks by which one character becomes distinguishable from the next. Lynch sees print as offering the model by which philosophers like Locke and Shaftesbury as well as writers, artists, and even actors such as David Garrick sought to realize character in their own domains: "by expediting the diffusion and uniform legibility of information, printed characters supplied the social order with its impersonal mechanisms of coherence and comprehensibility" (41). In a system that takes the concept of character so literally, the distinction between the realistic character and the grotesque caricature—what Lynch calls "the fine line between the more and the less" (23)—is not essential but incidental, the matter of a few strokes of the pen. But such a conception also helped proliferate character-types beyond easy comprehension or classification, an anxiety that Lynch sees as in part motivating the many novels depicting a young man being educated into gentility through his interaction with a broad range of social types. Although she touches on many texts, including Tom Jones, Betsy Thoughtless, and A Sentimental Journey, her central case is Tobias Smollett's Roderick Random, a novel whose protagonist's ability to circulate among all levels of British society seems predicated on his genericness. Roderick Random's curious lack of self-possession, Lynch suggests, stages the problem that novels will come to address more insistently: the need to render characters general enough that many different readers might be able to identify with them, but also to make them capable of being claimed as an individual reader's own property.

The second half of The Economy of Character describes the changed understanding of character in the second half of the eighteenth century as a change in reading practices brought on by the expanded market for printed matter. She argues that as reading became democratized, new strategies of discrimination were called for, strategies that entailed a shift from assessing outsides to projecting insides. She traces a growing desire for locating what could now be described as "round" characters, finding particularly interesting cases in Shakespeare criticism of the 1770s, where a new appreciation (or invention) of the depths of characters like Falstaff and Hamlet she takes to be symptomatic of the culture's growing desire to make subjectivity the hallmark of individuality. The privileged site of intelligibility for this operation is the novel, which Lynch sees as gaining new centrality in this period because of the way that it claimed to offer a unique insight into the inner lives of the characters around whose narratives they organized themselves. Lynch sees the boom in novel publishing from the 1760s onward as accountable in part by the fact that novelists began to craft literary characters whose inner lives offered "the imaginative resources on which readers drew to make themselves into individuals, to expand their own interior resources of sensibility" (126). Rather than the product of formal development, the protocols for interiority that the novel increasingly claimed as its province must be seen as the consequence of an expanding market culture that opened the question of how, in a world where character circulated like other commodities, a person could claim to exist in a place apart from the world of other circulating objects. Such problems, she argues, were particularly acute for young women, who found themselves to be objects on the marriage market. Here, she uses the heroines of Frances Burney's and Jane Austen's novels as her central cases for describing how the novel of manners offers readers—particularly women readers—what she dubs a "virtual subjectivity" (181), a prosthetic identity that readers can use as a space within which to explore and refine a self imagined to be private and distinctive, possessed of a unique sensibility that is nonetheless modeled on a character in a work of mass-produced fiction.

Among the bracing pleasures of Lynch's book is that it recovers a way of talking about the characters who inhabit eighteenth-century British literature that takes them on their own terms, rather than as failed anticipations of the denizens of, say, Henry James's fictions. As she puts it, early eighteenth-century characters were not "round characters inside flat characters all along, signaling frantically to get out" (123). She shows how even Austen, a novelist often taken to have finally gotten it right when it comes to describing a character from the inside, is well aware of the tradition of assessing types from the outside, and an apt student (as well as wry critic) of the crowded print market within which her own novels had to make their way. Lynch thus makes it possible to come to such familiar books as Evelina and Persuasion with eyes reacquainted with habits their first readers would have taken for granted, and it is also easy to imagine how her insights could be applied to authors she does not take up herself, such as Scott or Dickens. Perhaps most provocatively, Lynch suggests how our own desire to plumb the depths of round characters—an exercise pursued in the literature classroom as well as in the private space of reading—is both historically determinate and socially purposeful. The endless re-readability of round characters in literary texts has, she argues, served to organize, justify, and sustain literary studies since the early nineteenth century, constituting the basis of an institutional investment in the inexhaustability of characters that continues to the present.

Because she eschews throwing her lot in with master-narratives on the order of the rise of the novel, the middle class, or the individual subject, the link between the two broad sections of Lynch's study—organized respectively around the older model of the surface character and the newer, more familiar depth model of the early nineteenth century and beyond—is not fully narrated. In effect, various aspects of the "market culture" of her subtitle are recruited to serve as the root causes underpinning both modes by which characters were apprehended by eighteenth-century readers. When describing the first two thirds of the century, Lynch sees the expanding market in print and other commodities as calling for new "coping mechanisms," among which were the well-marked characters who served to make the complexities of the market legible. Later, she describes the transformation of character into a more inward concept as a consequence of the consumer revolution of the mid-eighteenth century and beyond; characters become commodities circulating within a (still-expanding) market in print as well as a way of differentiating oneself within an (even more) commodified culture. The market comes to be an extremely labile but also monolithic concept here, and I found myself sometimes wishing that she might articulate with greater specificity the contours of the economic and social change that she invokes. Still, Lynch's readings are so acute, and the kinds of evidence she is able to bring to bear on her subject so broad-ranging—from the late eighteenth-century simplification of men's clothing, Josiah Wedgwood's marketing practices, the history of quotation marks, the narratives of the Young Pretender's adventures, among others—that her tight focus on the question of character's transformation over the course of this period is more than justified. Perhaps most impressively, Lynch displays a voice and sensibility that one can only describe as characteristic in the sense of distinctive, a deft facility with a wide range of material and evidence that easily marks this as an exciting and original book, one that students and fans of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British fiction will profit from and enjoy.