The virtue of prudence rose in prestige in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. By the middle of the eighteenth century British men — especially the men — delighted in claiming prudence for their own behavior and a cynical supposition that others were motivated similarly. Thus Adam Smith initiated the economist’s delight in the unintended consequences that lay in wait for busybodies or that up-valued the actions of the merely selfish. Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson both account for their own behavior in prudential terms, rather than in noble or in religious terms, and go about prudently measuring Gulf Streams and Scottish castles.
The voice of the novelists, beginning with Defoe dates, who pioneered the genre in English, is clearly bourgeois. The eighteenth and especially the nineteenth-century roman eventually comes to be focused indeed on the bourgeois home, in sharp contrast to adventure yarns, long called “romances,” whence the standard French word for the novel. A “romance” was since the middle ages a tale of knights or shepherds idealized. The Greeks and Romans had novels on more mundane matters, such as dinner parties. So from the twelfth century did the Japanese, for example, focusing on love and courtly life, and these written famously by women. Defoe’s version arose out of bourgeois romances like Dekker’s, out of broadsheets and pamphlets giving the news of prodigious storms and terrible murders, and out of a rich devotional literature of English Puritans. 293 The leading case is Robinson Crusoe (1719), but Defoe wrote also in his realist style Journal of a Plague Year (DDDD) and his masterpiece of the proto-novelistic genre, Moll Flanders (DDDD; this among hundreds of other publications: the man was a publishing house of bourgeois propaganda).
The novel is associated in every way with the middle classes, which is an old point in literary criticism, made most enthusiastically by left-wing critics from the 1930s on. An English novel was a novelty about the middling sort. As the South-African novelist and critic J. M. Coetzee put it recently in his introduction to an edition of Robinson Crusoe, “for page and page — for the first time in the history of fiction — we see a minute, ordered description of how things are done.” 294 How things are done, savoir faire, is precisely the virtue of prudence that Defoe praised in all his writings. Defoe’s imagination, as a nineteenth-century French critic wrote on the eve of the clerisy reacting to all things bourgeois, was that of a man of business. 295 The realism ***Give analysis from If You’re So Smart, maybe supplemented by Coetzee Foe.
The realist novel perfected by the English and then successively by the French and the Italians and the Russians and the Germans was hostile to non-bourgeois cultures. (Indeed, the recent turn to magic realism and postmodernity in the novel registers the strongly anti-bourgeois feelings of the twentieth-century clerisy.) As Coetzee said in an essay about the twentieth-century Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, the realistic novel devalues tradition — “it values originality, self-founding,” as though the founder of a business, not putting high value on the invented traditions of an ancient family. “It imitates the mode of the scientific case study or the law brief rather than the hearthside fairy tale.” As the realistic novel was being devised the scientific revolution was gathering in prestige and the law was becoming the occupation for bourgeois younger sons. Writes Coetzee, the novel before high modernism “prides itself on a language bereft of ornament,” reaching its height in Hemingway’s one true sentence. It focuses “on the stead, prosaic observation and recording of detail,” as in Crusoe’s struggles with the raft and the canoe. “It is just the kind of vehicle,” Coetzee concludes, “one would expect Europe’s merchant bourgeoisie to invent in order to record and celebrate its own ideals and achievements.” 296 There is some slippage here: it was the sons and daughters of the literal gentry, or the literal clergy, who above all wrote the novels, not the offspring of merchants. And so the best of the English novel does not directly celebrate buying low and selling high.
In his survey of its history 1727 to 1783 Paul Langford characterizes England as by then thoroughly bourgeois, “a polite and commercial people” (in the phrase from Blackstone that Langford uses as his book’s title). He quarrels repeatedly with the more usual notion that aristocratic values ruled in the age of the Whig grandees. 297 The “seeming passion for aristocratic values,” for example, evinced in the vogue for spas (such as Bath) and seaside reports (such as Brighton), “depended on a middle class clientele, the upper middling sorts described in Jane Austen’s novels. Britain in the eighteenth century was a plutocracy if anything, and even as a plutocracy one in which power was widely diffused, constantly contested, and ever adjusting to new incursions of wealth, often modest wealth.” As early as 1733, Langford claims, “the shopkeepers and tradesmen of England were immensely powerful as a class.” “Bath owed its name to the great but its fortune to the mass of middling.” 298
Something evidently happened in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The first voice of theorizing in English is Addison: “With The Spectator the voice of the bourgeois, ” Basil Willey declares, “is first heard in polite letters, and makes his first decisive contribution to the English moral tradition.” Addison was “the first lay preacher to reach the ear of the middle-classes,” though it would seem that for the less high-brow middling sort Defoe scoops him by a decade or so. “The hour was ripe for a rehabilitation of the virtues [against Restoration cynicism], and [Addison and Steele] were the very men for the task.” 299 Decades later, incidentally, the Dutch return the favor of the Addisonian project, under the heading of “Spectatorial Papers” in explicit imitation and against a perceived corruption of the bourgeois virtues — French manners, effeminate men, nepotism, and sleeping late. 300
Wright’s old Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935) is surely still correct in claiming that the education of the English bourgeoisie during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the scholarly and even scientific habits that Deborah Harkness (2007) has recently emphasized, made the “sudden” emergence of a literate and confident class late in the seventeenth and early in the eighteenth century less surprising.
“The gospel of work, one of the most significant articles of the bourgeois dogma,” Louis Wright declared long ago, “was promulgated with great earnestness during the period of Puritan supremacy and paved the way for the later apotheosis of business, which has colored the entire outlook of the modern world” (Wright 1935 p. 656). He offers little evidence of this himself, and what matters here is how the society in general felt about work. No doubt a merchant urged himself and his fellows to work at accounts and correspondence into the night. But as long as a gentleman is defined to have no avocation at all, except rattling swords and composing sonnets, the turn has not been reached.
Loftis has argued that the eighteenth-century theatre testifies to a new admiration for the bourgeoisie. While commending Loftis for his energy in research the economist Jacob Viner offered “the simpler hypothesis. . . that as soon as merchants came to the theatre in sufficient numbers the dramatists would provide fare which would retain them as customers.” Viner thus appeals to the Rise of the Bourgeoisie in its simplest economistic form — not as a rise in prestige originating in the superstructure but a rise in sheer numbers originating in the base. It is a cruder form of the Clark Hypothesis. Viner may be right about the eighteenth century. [***counter evidence in Loftis/] But in general the relation between actual and implied audience is not so simple. [***look into Wayne Booth's thinking on just this point.] Shakespeare flattered his aristocratic and especially his royal audiences, but his actual audience contained numerous merchants of London [check in Shake. literature; also % of population that was merchant; ask John Huntington]. The director of Wall Street (DDDD) assaulted financial capitalism, but many a financial capitalist gloried in the movie [check in Wall Street Journal; Financial Times]
The crux is bringing bourgeoisie into the full light of honor. It happens in Britain around 1700. (Remarkably, it happens in Japan, too, about the same time, at least in the merchant academies of Osaka). 301 The comedy of the Restoration had still sneered as Shakespeare and his contemporaries had at the bourgeoisie. But matters changed in the early eighteenth century. In their book An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 DDDD) Lawrence Stone and Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone noted the change. The attempt during the seventeenth century to claim the honored aristocratic values for the bourgeoisie failed, dying “of its own. . . implausibility, and was crushed under the avalanche of satirical plays and pamphlets. . . in which the figure of the merchant continued to be portrayed in stereotypical terms that went back to antiquity.” Early in the eighteenth century, by contrast, “at the hands of men such as Addison and Steele. . . [the overseas merchant at least] was now portrayed as a responsible and sober citizen, . . . whose commercial activities were recognized as . . . the basis of the nation’s prosperity and greatness.” 302
A “cit,” from “citizen,” is in Johnson’s Dictionary “a pert low townsman.” The word would have arisen in reaction to the seventeenth-century empowerment of the bourgeoisie. The newly defined “squirearchy” would have such a word in its mouth. A merchant of Bristol, Mr. Sealand (“sea-land” which about covers it), declares in Steele’s play of 1723 [***? 1722] , The Conscious Lovers, that
The cringe when spoken by the bourgeois was still there in the “cit” word, and in the absurd (though sarcastic) “almost as useful” in evaluating the merchant “species of gentry” against the country version Mr. Sealand duels verbally against the other and high-status gentry-father in the play, and the playwright allows him to win:
Mr. Sealand: And I never knew anyone who had many better advantages put that into his account.
Even Mr. Sealand’s witticism is expressed in the bourgeois language of accounts.
Voltaire wrote with definite sarcasm ten years later, “I don’t know which is the more useful to the state, a well-powdered lord who knows precisely when the king gets up in the morning. . . or a great merchant who enriches his country, sends orders from his office to Surat or to Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world.” And still later, Johnson On how innocent the getting of money was. And later still, in 1844, on the eve of the Great Conversion against innovation among American and other scholars, Emerson: “There are geniuses in trade, as well as in war. . . . Nature seems to authorize trade, as soon as you see the natural merchant. . . . The habit of his mind is a reference to standards of natural equity and public advantage; and he inspires respect, and the wish to deal with him, both for the quiet spirit of honor which attends him, and for the intellectual pastime which the spectacle of so much ability affords.”
Early in that bright morning of bourgeois power, in 1731, George Lillo (1693-1739), a jeweler of London, wrote The London Merchant,: or, The History of George Barnwell, his second play and his first success. It inaugurated the bourgeois tragedy, and was imitated in France and Germany a quarter century later in the bÃ¼rgerliches Trauerspiel. The history of the play eerily parallels Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday 132 years before, and the contrast between the two neatly exhibits the change in attitude. Like Dekker, Lillo was of Dutch origin (he was supposed to be the son of a Dutch jeweler). Like Dekker’s, Lillo’s play was after its initial success performed yearly for the benefit of the young bourgeois of the City, invariably at Christmas down to 1818, and often on the Lord Mayor’s Day in November. Like The Shoemaker’s Holiday, it was “judged a proper entertainment for the apprentices, etc., as being a more instructive, moral, and cautionary tale than many pieces,” as the original producer and star of it, Theophilus Cibber, put it. And like The Shoemaker’s Holiday it is clumsy, below the best standard of its age (Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus of 1588-89, for example, not to speak of Shakespeare; or John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera of 1728), but was very successful indeed. From 1702 to 1776 it was the third most often produced English play. 304
The plot was drawn from an old street ballad, set in the Armada time of 1588 (Britain in 1731 had recently again been at war with Spain). In the Child ballad version
At Ludlow he doth dwell;
He is a grazier, which in wealth
Doth all the rest excel.
“Ere I will live in lack,
And have no coin for thee,
I’ll rob his house and murder him.”
“Why should you not,” quoth she.
The tale was known well enough that the “fine, powdered sparks” (in the phrase from the poet laureate Colley Cibber’s “Epilogue”) who attended the first performance brought along copies of the broadsheet, which the playwright had scattered around the town by way of advertising on the day before the opening, intending to sneer at the play itself. But, Colley’s son Theophilus claims, they stayed to weep. The 18-year old George Barnwell, apprenticed to a good merchant of the City, is tempted by Mrs. Millwood the whore to steal from his master of the bourgeoisie and then murder his uncle of the gentry for money. Barnwell and Millwood both end on the gallows, but Barnwell is blessed by true repentance.
The play praises the bourgeoisie throughout — as some modern critics put it, “almost militant in its pride in the middle class.” 305 “Honest merchants,” declares the elder Thorowgood at the beginning of the play, at all times contribute to the happiness of their country (I, I, p. 293; compare Voltaire). 306 Thorowgood then asserts what was contested in the language of the 1730s, that “as the name of merchant never degrades the gentleman, so by no means does it exclude him.” 307 Lillo lays it on thick. Thorowgood instructs his other, virtuous apprentice Trueman “if . . . you should be tempted to any action that has [even] the appearance of vice or meanness in it, upon reflecting upon the dignity of our profession you may with honest scorn reject whatever is unworthy of it.” The big merchants dealing in foreign goods came to stand and at the height of bourgeois dignity. Forty years later, in Richard Cumberland’s sentimental comedy, The West Indian, a character addresses the elderly merchant, Stockwell (epithets as names were conventional at the time): “a merchant of your eminence, and a member of the British parliament, might sure aspire, without offense, to [marry] the daughter of a [rich gentry, West Indian] planter.” 308 Such a hierarchy-offending proposal was more controversial in 1731, and Lillo had therefore to claim virtue for his merchant more insistently. In the same opening scene Thorowgood, on exiting, instructs his assistant to “look carefully over the files to see whether there are any tradesmen’s bills unpaid.” Like the death of Little Nell, it would require a heart of stone to read the set-up scenes of The London Merchant without laughing. But in seriousness, is it not a matter of virtue to pay one’s tailor? What kind of person accepts the wares of tradesmen and then refuses to give something in return? No merchant he.
Thorowgood’s eligible daughter Maria continues the aggressively pro-bourgeois propaganda, refusing to appear before “men of quality.” “The man of quality who chooses to converse with a gentleman and merchant [note the mixing] of your worth and character,” she says, “may confer honor by doing so, but he loses none” (I, i, p. 295). And later the master merchant Thorowgood instructed the good apprentice Trueman against Max U: “I would not have you only learn the method of merchandise . . . merely as a means of getting wealth.” On the contrary, the bourgeois life “is founded in reason and the nature of things.” “It promotes humanity,” he continues, in a line of reasoning used often to defend merchants, “as it has opened and yet keeps up an intercourse between nations far remote from one another in situation, customs and religion; promoting arts, industry, peace and plenty; by mutual benefit diffusing mutual love from pole to pole” (III, I, pp. 311-312). Trueman answers as though he were John Bright or Richard Cobden defending free trade in the nineteenth century: “I have observed those countries where trade is promoted and encouraged do not make discoveries to destroy, but to improve, mankind” (III, I, p. 312). (In DDDD The Shoemaker’s Holiday took no such wide view of political economy. The nation’s benefit was not in view, as increasingly it was later, from mercantilism to free trade.) Trueman and Thorowgood then launch on mutual assurances on the desirability of European imperialism: “it is the industrious merchant’s business to collect the various blessings of each soil and climate,” with a little help from soldiers and ships, “and, with the product of the whole, to enrich his native country” (III, I, p. 312).
The good apprentice Trueman is praised by his master in bourgeois style: “I have examined your accounts. They are not only just, as I have always found them, but regularly kept and fairly entered. I commend your diligence” (III, I, p. 312). In this the bad apprentice Barnwell is found at once to be disastrously deficient, though he was promising in bourgeois virtues: “never was life more regular than his: an understanding uncommon at his  years; and open, generous manliness of temper; his manners easy, unaffected, and engaging” (III, I, p. 313). Says Trueman of his wayward friend, “few men recover reputation lost — a merchant, never” (III, I, pp. 313-314). The propaganda has a tacked-on air. The play uses the word “interest” always opposed to virtue: the condemned Barnwell in his cell declares that is “not my interest only, but my duty, to believe and to rejoice in that hope” of heavenly forgiveness (V, ii, p. 331). Lillo was attempting to shift tragedy from “Princes distressed and scenes of royal woe” to “the circumstances of the generality of mankind,” and was not quite up to the standard of Ibsen or O’Neill in such stuff. 309 His play was admired in Germany especially, serving as a model for a middle-class drama. G. E. Lessing declared in 1756, “I would infinitely prefer to be the creator of The London Merchant than the creator of [Gottsched’s 1732 conventional tragedy based on French models and Addison’s Cato “Der sterbende Cato.” 310
Laura Brown finds in The London Merchant a celebration of bourgeois values, such as “indulgent treatment of children, voluntary choice in marriage, wedded love, the intermarriage of merchant and aristocratic families, the appropriateness of bourgeois marriage at court, the prompt payment of tradesmen, and a general anti-Spanish nationalism and imperialism in keeping with contemporary political concerns.” (Brown 1985, p. 185). Polly Stevens Fields offers a feminist reading, noting that Mrs. Millwood, the whore, is the active agent in the play: “Millwood is hardly the ‘girl who can’t say no’ from the male fund of fantasy; rather, she knows that her only commodity is her body. . . . We may meaningfully regard Millwood, not Barnwell, as ‘The London Merchant’ of the title” (Fields 1999, p.2). Mrs. Millwood could be speaking of merchants relative to “men of quality” as well as women relative to men when she says, “We are no otherwise esteemed or regarded by them but as we contribute to their satisfaction” (Act I, Scene II, p. 296). In a ferocious scene in which she is apprehended she declares the revenge of women on men: “To right their sex’s wrong devote their mind,/ And future Millwoods prove, to plague mankind!” (IV, ii, p. 329).