Socio-economic developments from critical perspective
By Indeewara Thilakarathne
Ceylon Today Mosaic
In last week's column I examined how the emergence of new economic order was dealt with in successive literary productions. What is important to note is that how literati of the era witnessed these seminal changes that virtually changed the social order from feudalism to capitalism and free commerce.
In an essay titled "Eighteenth Century Attitudes towards business", W. A. Speck of University of Leeds observes these seminal societal changes as; "From the bare outline of Crusoe's adventures Defoe might not seem to have found much to commend in the merchant's calling. Yet though Crusoe is inclined to blame Fate for his misfortune, Defoe makes him the author of his own misery, partly through his lack of piety but mainly through his want of prudence. It is his impious refusal to obey his father's wishes which leads to his first shipwreck in the Yarmouth roads, but it is his imprudently overreaching himself in business ventures which indirectly causes his solitary confinement on the island. Defoe, who had himself failed in business, blamed such failures not on economic conditions but on moral and personal faults in the businessman.
As he put it in The Compleat English Tradesman: 'There must be some failure in the tradesman, it can be no where else; either he is less sober or less frugal, less cautious of what he does, who he trusts, how he lives, and how he behaves, than tradesmen used to be; or he is less industrious, less diligent, and takes less care and pains in his business, or something is the matter.'
Crusoe himself admits that, at a time when his plantation was beginning to flourish, 'for me to think of such a voyage was the most preposterous thing that ever man in such circumstances could be guilty of '. He triumphs over adversity by learning to be both pious and prudent. It is especially in his acquisition of skills for physical survival that Defoe indicates his admiration of the characteristics which enabled men to survive in trade.
Joseph Addison also championed the commercial community in the pages of The Spectator. 'There are not more useful members in a commonwealth than merchants', he observed in one essay. 'They knit mankind together in a mutual intercourse of good offices, distribute the gifts of Nature, find work for the poor, add Wealth to the Rich, and magnificence to the Great.' In the archetypal merchant he created with Sir Andrew Freeport, one of the leading members of the Spectator Club, he epitomised these virtues. At his first appearance we are told that he is: 'a merchant of great eminence in the City of London: a person of indefatigable industry, strong reason and great experience. His notions of trade are noble and generous, and (as every rich man has usually some sly way of jesting, which would make no great figure were he not a rich man) he calls the sea the British common.'
And yet in the end Sir Andrew sells out and becomes a country gentleman. When he resigned from the Spectator Club he informed its members that he was leaving business to set up as a landed proprietor: 'as the greatest part of my estate has been hitherto of an unsteady and volatile nature, either tost upon seas or fluctuating in funds; it is now fixed and settled in substantial acres and tenements.'
In this respect Sir Andrew Freeport is the archetype of the successful businessman who acquires a country estate and leaves commerce. Their upwardly mobile ambitions were both satirised and sanctioned by contemporary writers. And ultimately the goal of landownership has been criticised for eroding the entrepreneurial spirit in England."
Significant is to observe the critiquing and sanctioning of the different businessmen.
He observes, "The entrepreneurs who rose by manipulating the fiscal system set up in the Financial Revolution to acquire landed estates and set themselves up as country gentlemen were stock characters in the political satire of the age.
The archetype of these was Thomas Double, a character created by Charles Davenant, who started out as a shoemaker's apprentice in London, but left shoemaking to buy a place in the Customs with money bequeathed to him by his grandmother 'who sold barley-broth and furmenty by Fleet ditch'.
In James II's reign, however, he was convicted of fraud and turned out of the customs service. Where he had previously been a loyal Tory, he now became 'a furious Whig'. When his grandmother's legacy ran out he was 'forced to be a corrector of a private press in a garret, for three shillings a week'.
Then the Revolution improved his condition, for he was able by an outrageous confidence trick to pass himself off as an agent of the Prince of Orange and by even more brazen cheating at dice to win money from the man he had conned. He then set out to make his fortune from the new régime, starting with shares in the discovery of concealed Crown lands, and moving into the big time with enormous frauds in the disposal of confiscated Irish estates. Double claimed the credit for the Financial Revolution, which had 'run the nation head over ears in debt by our funds, and new devices'. He confessed that £50,000 had stuck to his fingers when he acted as receiver of taxes, and although it had cost him £20,000 to buy off a parliamentary inquiry by bribing MPs, he still had enough left to live at ease, with his country seat, a town house and a coach and six "
The new rich found their way into fiction as successive characters in political satires. The attitudes towards business in English literature, offers another important facet of literature. That , obviously, is not to report the goings on but to look at socio-economic developments in a critical manner.
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