Mary Poovey's newest book, Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain, analyzes the emergence of the fact/fiction distinction out of what Poovey claims were once genres on a continuum: economic writing and literary writing. This distinction, Poovey argues, began in the eighteenth century, when "practitioners of both writing about financial matters and imaginative writing began to renounce their shared function--to deny that they shared the same function or practiced it in the same way" (7). Such an argument revisits territory already trodden by students of the history/novel divide; that historical "story" also begins in the eighteenth century and culminates in the last quarter or so of the nineteenth, when an increasingly professionalized historical discipline ranged itself against what had once been a prestige genre, the historical novel. Poovey's argument, however, is more explicitly meta-disciplinary. She argues, for example, that while earlier practitioners of the so-called "new economic criticism" have detected "structural homologies" (25) in economic and literary texts, their very ability to do so is itself the product of disciplinary professionalization, which relies on "theoretical paradigms" to reveal what would have been invisible at the time (26). Or, as Poovey later argues, "these continuities now have to be discovered because nineteenth-century writers devoted so much energy to denying them and because their efforts were, to a certain extent, successful" (166). The narrative strategies for occluding the relationship between literature and the world of money, in other words, produced what we now see are the "metaphoric resemblance" between apparently non-related genres. Literature began on a "continuum" with economic writing, but the two generic forms spent so much effort disciplining themselves (as it were) that those metaphoric resemblances are the sole remaining trace of their connection. To boil it down, then: instead of tracing overlaps between literary and economic genres, Poovey is arguing that any overlaps derive from the process of separating them. This separation finally results in modern disciplinarity...the contemporary academic environment.
Although Poovey frequently pauses to reflect on the assumptions of literary historiography, as when she narrates her realization that formalist analysis and interpretation cannot function as "historical evidence or as evidence for a historical argument" (343), her approach to "historical description" leaves one grouping of assumptions interestingly untouched. Taken together, these assumptions form what I'm calling our "necessary fiction":
- A "problematic of representation" (Poovey's term) in one arena, like the economic, will trigger figurative equivalents elsewhere (or, at least, the perception thereof).
- Novelist = intellectual.
- Novelists respond to contemporary influences.
- Or they construct their fictional worlds using contemporary sources.
- If you publish, they will read. (I.e.: if there are a lot of publications on a particular topic, one can assume that Author X will at least have some acquaintance with it.)
(You can substitute "poet" where necessary, but both Poovey and I are primarily interested in the novel.)
This necessary fiction comes in very handy indeed. The problem with it is that it frequently isn't true, and that if you knock out one item from my bulleted list, several others go with it as well. In Poovey's book, the necessary fiction manifests itself abruptly in her account of Jane Austen's "gestural aesthetic"--"it gestures toward extratextual events but so carefully manages these allusions that the reader is invited back into the text instead of encouraged to go outside its pages" (363). Most of the book covers authors who are demonstrably engaged with economic texts, like Defoe or Martineau, but Austen is different: " [...] I argue that the third occasion that provoked Austen not simply to write and to publish but to develop the gestural aesthetic that became the signature of her craft was the passage, in 1797, of the Bank Restriction Act--or, more precisely, the changes this act caused in the epistemological and social conditions in which the mature Austen lived and wrote" (357). As Poovey acknowledges a few pages down the road, the "formal homology" that she discovers between Austen's narrative and the "breach of promise" associated with the Act isn't evidence for her claim, nor could it be (369)--but, she goes on, the "three breaches of promise" (370) at the end of her novel suggest that she wanted to acknowledge the situation caused by the Restriction so that she could use her fiction to manage the anxieties it caused" (370). Linking personal breaches of promise to financial ones, then, provides comfort by other means: "By alluding, however indirectly, to actual issues that might have concerned her readers--the war, unacknowledged debt, the role that representation had always played in Britain's credit economy--Austen was able to incorporate these matters into a safe, because textual, world of words, where they could be managed, translated onto other terms, then simply dismissed" (371). Here, historical context "completes" the narrative, in the sense of explaining what might otherwise seem odd about it, even as the novelist herself works very hard to tame and ultimately expel that same context from her work.
Strictly speaking, then, Poovey's analysis here follows her overall thesis, which is that we "find" traces of economic discourse because the writer is working so darned hard to distinguish her fiction from economic fact. Overall, this argument is convincing, especially because such traces result in general from any extended engagement with even the most antithetical ideas. However, elsewhere in the text, Poovey's novelists either demonstrably know something about economics (Martineau, Defoe) or have a specific individual/event in mind (Trollope, Dickens). (Or the economists and journalists clearly have some passing acquaintance with fiction.) The Austen example, however, requires several leaps of faith: that Jane Austen's passing acquaintance with banking would have led her to think in detail about the Bank Restriction Act; that Austen would have extrapolated one breach of promise from another; that Austen would have thought there was a general epistemological crisis; that Austen would have conceptualized her novel as a coherent political intervention; that Austen would have been thinking about contemporary events and not, say, the heated eighteenth-century legal debates over breach of promise; that Austen would have cared about any of this; and so forth. But it is not obviously the case that any of these things must be true, and it seems to me just as likely that they probably aren't true. I think it's quite possible to drastically underestimate just how little interest a great novelist can take in current events; a silence may speak of ignorance, not strategic elision. Or, alternately, we may underestimate just how little a great novelist understands about current events--in which case, what looks like a tactical transformation may just be a basic misunderstanding.1
1 Or a minor novelist, for that matter; Anna Eliza Bray changes out one historical figure for another when rewriting a famous narrative from John Foxe, but is she making some Big Thematic Point or just misremembering what she saw on the page?