Contested cargoes: Free trade and fantasies of the global in British literature and political economy, 1814–1865
Patten, Robert L.
Doctor of Philosophy
Literary depictions of commodity circulation across national borders and tropes of free trade in economic discourses reveal that in early- and mid-nineteenth-century Britain, international commerce metonymically represented unstoppable traffic of all kinds between distant lands. Discursively, legal and illegal forms of free trade, from smuggling to government-sanctioned importation, became signifiers of unrestrained intellectual, sexual, and affective exchange. Textual representations of border-crossing commerce facilitated meditations Britain's relationship to the rest of the world, helped imagine cosmopolitan experience, and produced competing models for a world bound by capitalist exchange. The evaluation of global capitalism in early- and mid-nineteenth century Britain relied on moral structures instated by existing nationalist, gender-related, and religious ideologies even as it produced new ways of understanding the world as a totality. Narratives and tropes of treasonous betrayal (chapter one) and rampant sexuality (chapter two), as well as those of marital union (chapter three) and religious devotion (chapter four), helped ascribe both negative and positive moral valences to free trade. The figures of the smuggler, the Jew, the prostitute, and the cosmopolitan merchant, appearing in diverse genres such as the historical novel, nautical fiction, melodrama, epic poetry, and the social problem novel, mediated discussions of the social and subjective effects of laissez-faire. From Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels and John Galt's Annals of the Parish to Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit and Captain Marryat's Snarleyyow, from Harriet Martineau's Dawn Island and Charlotte Brontë's Shirley to Ebenezer Elliott's Corn-Law Rhymes and R. H. Horne's Orion, literary works addressed how international commerce would transform subjective experience. Free trade appeared to correspond to such diverse experiences as the dissipation of political allegiances, the breaking down of self-control, the cultivation of romantic attachment, and religious faith. The ideological function of the translation of economic phenomena into subjective experience was to criticize or justify global capitalism, not on the grounds of whether it would render Britons more prosperous, but based upon its imagined effects on inter-personal and international relations. The understanding of global commerce as a morally socially transformative force, which informs present-day debates about globalization, was already present at the free-market economy's moment of origin.
British and Irish literature; Language, literature and linguistics; British Cosmopolitanism; Free trade; Global Political economy