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Economic Thought and the Victorian Individual: Examining Narratives of Daily Life

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How did Victorians make sense of daily economic life? We know a great deal about the development of more formally articulated narratives of economic activity – Ricardo, J.S. Mill, Ruskin, Chalmers – narratives that contributed to the emerging discipline of economics, and helped Victorians structure the evolving systems of high capitalism. But we still know relatively little of the conceptual landscape of small-scale economic practice – the logic of individual spending, selling and saving, of borrowing and lending, which took place at a remove from these formal, orthodox narratives. These daily practices – what we might call lived economic experience – followed their own narrative logic: one that was constructed out of the experience of millions of Victorian adults and children. Individual economic behaviour was understood in terms of a much wider constellation of social and moral narratives, and Victorian culture is saturated with economic personae that blend the economic with the moral along these lines: the Scrooge, the debtor, the businessman, the philanthropist. This paper looks at the intellectual and cultural framework of lived economic experience in the mid-Victorian period. It follows a strand of recent scholarship which aims to complicate our understanding of Victorian economic thought and practice, looking to alternative sites of activity and research methodologies in literature and culture. Rather than a conceptually segregated sphere of economic activity, this points to an economic life that is fully embedded in sociocultural life, with high degree of differentiation in economic practice along gender, class, geographic and religious lines. Focusing on this idea of differentiation at the level of lived economic experience, this paper takes up the idea of economic persona, or character, as an alternative structuring narrative that functioned as a model for performing and assessing individual economic behaviour.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Seminars series.

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