How business reflected in English literature

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By 2017-10-08

By Indeewara Thilakarathne
Ceylon Today Mosaic

In this week's column, we look at the attitude towards business in eighteenth century English Literature. What is noteworthy is how diverse facets of life are being codified in literary work and the attitude towards business, particularly, of the masses being reflected in literature.

In an essay titled " Eighteenth Century Attitudes towards business" , W. A. Speck of the University of Leeds observes this aspect in eighteenth century literature as; "In the early 18th-century, literary reactions to business activity were largely conditioned by the impact of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 upon society. Above all they were influenced by the rise of the fiscal-military state and by its creation of a special relationship between the government and the City generated by the so called Financial Revolution. Later, in the middle decades of the century, literary responses to commerce addressed the effects of economic growth and a rising standard of living, which some welcomed as 'progress' but others deplored as 'luxury'.

Towards the end of the century incipient industrialisation and class struggle were emerging as themes informing some writings, anticipating the debate between the pessimists and the optimists over the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. But the most vociferous literary responses to business activity in the closing decades of the century were responding to the campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, a campaign which triumphed in 1807.

The term Financial Revolution sums up those measures introduced to underwrite the wars against Louis XIV which occupied the years 1689 to 1697 and 1702 to 1713. These required revenues on a quite unprecedented scale. Moreover, the taxes voted by parliament, although initially adequate for war finance, took time to reach the Treasury. Meanwhile, allies and the armed forces had to be paid and equipped, necessitating the anticipation of revenues. The government therefore resorted to loans secured on the various taxes, at first short term but increasingly long term, until a national debt came into being which depended on faith in the régime's ability to pay the interest. "

W.A Speck notes that it was to this measure that a mix reaction was received. The members of the financial corporations, bureaucrats and the subscribers to the stocks of the three great companies were for the reform while landed gentry were critical of the new development. It is interesting to observe the debate over 'Luxury' which in fact was against economic growth and oversea trade (international trade).

Speck observes, "Mandeville was contributing to a debate which went beyond the pros and cons of public credit to the question of whether economic growth in general was beneficial to society. This debate centred around the word 'Luxury' in the sense of demands for commodities which drove up the standard and the cost of living. Mandeville was quite convinced that it was beneficial. Luxury 'employed a million of the poor'. It was particularly the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy whose demand for buildings, furniture, equipages and clothes stimulated the urban economy. Above all, it was the insistence of upper-class women on luxury goods which swelled the demand for them: '...the variety of work that is performed and the number of hands employed to gratify the fickleness and luxury of women is prodigious.'

Swift was convinced that Luxury was detrimental to social wellbeing. He got Gulliver to complain that he wore 'the workmanship of a hundred tradesmen; the building and furniture of my house employ as many more; and five times the number to adorn my wife'. He was particularly scathing about the extravagance of women, asserting that 'this whole globe of earth must be at least three times gone round, before one of our better female Yahoos could get their breakfast, or a cup to put it in', while in order to feed the luxury and intemperance of the males, and the vanity of the females, we sent away the greatest part of our necessary things to other countries, from whence in return we brought the materials of diseases, folly and vice to spend among ourselves'.
The dispute over luxury was thus at bottom a debate about the impact of overseas trade on society. Reactionaries like Swift deplored its allegedly corrosive effect on manners and morals, while progressive thinkers like Mandeville welcomed its contribution to improving the the standard of living and the quality of life. "

However, Daniel Defoe's attitude was quite opposite to that of Jonathan Swift. He was, in fact, for the commerce and trade. "Robinson Crusoe can be read as a paean of praise to business Activity. Crusoe starts out not as a merchant but as a mariner, leaving home at the age of 18 when he was too old to be apprenticed either to a tradesman or as a clerk to an attorney. As a mariner, however, he made a profit on his first voyage to Guinea, exchanging toys worth £40 for gold dust worth nearly £300,which he says 'made me both a sailor and a merchant'. He therefore 'set up for a Guiney trader'. Later he became a planter in Brazil and after four years began to prosper; until he estimated that in three or four years he would be worth £3,000 or even £4,000. Then he made the fateful decision to enter the slave trade, which led to his shipwreck and his long sojourn on an island. "Another writer who campaigned for the commercial community was Joseph Addison.

What is interesting is that literature does not only offer a favourite pastime but also conveyed myriad facts of life.

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