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Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland

Author(s):Bigelow, Gordon
Reviewer(s):Peart, Sandra

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Gordon Bigelow, Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. x + 229 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-82848-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sandra Peart, Department of Economics, Baldwin-Wallace College.

Gordon Bigelow’s Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland serves as a powerful reminder that economic ideas — then and now — are contextual, and that we fail fully to understand them when we neglect context. So, in Victorian England and Ireland, political economy emerged amidst social and literary responses to institutional, banking, and agricultural failures of the 1840s. Bigelow’s book demonstrates that there is much to be learned about economics from a survey of this commentary, his aim being “to understand the relationship between economics and other forms of social discourse and description in the nineteenth century” (p. 8).

Bigelow is an assistant professor of English at Rhodes College in Tennessee. His project is necessarily ambitious: he attempts to place the economic theory and methodology developed by Adam Smith through William Stanley Jevons in the context of major literary and philosophical discussions that took place during a period of roughly one hundred years. In the course of his investigation, Bigelow argues that political economy was entirely reoriented in the nineteenth century (p. 182). This comes as no surprise to economists who are familiar with the history of economic ideas and the “Marginal” or “Jevonian Revolution” that occurred with the near-simultaneous publication of Jevons’s Theory of Political Economy (1871), Carl Menger’s Grunds?tze (1871), and L?on Walras’s El?ments d’?conomie politiques (1870). For the most part, accounts of the transition by historians of economic thought have focused on the formal elements that entered into economics at the time.

Bigelow argues, instead, that neoclassical economics originated in the harsh and successful cultural criticism of classical (liberal) political economy (p. 4). Late in the century, Jevonian economics divorced itself from culture and politics (p. 3) and economic theory re-emerged as a “widely-accepted justification of capitalism” with the consumer at the centre of economic theory (pp. 2, 73). In the course of the transition, the “sea-change in the understanding of value that takes place between the work of Ricardo and that of Jevons, 1871, reveals a great deal about the cultural and political orientation of economic thought in the period” (p. 50).

To make his case, Bigelow begins with a wonderfully oriented investigation of Smithian economics. He rightly makes the case that Smith’s “theory of wealth and poverty developed out of his engagement with the philosophy of language” (p. 13). Human communication arose out of physical needs (p. 29), humans are characterized by a capacity for sympathy (p. 36), and humans trade both sentiment as well as goods (p. 44). To this, might be added the explicit case made by Smith in his Wealth of Nations for trade carried in language and governed by reciprocity (Smith 1776, p. 30). It might be noted, as well, that Smith’s position is in line with that of Archbishop Whately (see Whately 1831, p. 6), whom Bigelow distances from Smith on a number of issues. Bigelow rightly focuses on the significance of the debates concerning national character that ensued. Smith’s position on these matters, especially relative to that of Hume, is terribly important. Smith held to a doctrine (contra Hume) of human homogeneity, the street porter being the philosopher’s equivalent (see Peart and Levy 2005).

Since he makes his case in 229 pages — including 45 pages of notes, bibliography and index — there are, understandably, areas in Bigelow’s reconstruction that might be fleshed out. I would point to three. First, he might expand upon the romantic criticism of English classical political economy, wonderfully done as it is. Bigelow sketches the criticisms in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Cranford, and North and South, and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. But Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 essay and John Stuart Mill’s 1850 response to it — both in the center of the ten-year period in which Bigelow locates the “death” of Classical political economy — are entirely missing. Second, the role and influence of mid-nineteenth century biological and anthropological “science” receives no attention. Third, since the book points to a “sea-change” that culminates in the development of Jevonian exchange theory, Bigelow might examine Jevons’s works, including but not limited to The Theory of Political Economy, more fully.

Bigelow’s account focuses specifically on 1845-55, in which the seeds of the “sea-change” were sown in the debate between classical political economists and social and literary commentators (pp.74-75). Yet the picture is distorted if we leave Thomas Carlyle — and, for that matter, John Ruskin — largely out of the fray. For we fail to see what alternatives to capitalism were being defended by at least some of the critics of classical political economy. In his essay, Carlyle made the case that classical political economists were wrong to presume that all humans were potentially the same, that institutions, not inherent characteristics, explained observed variations in poverty and wealth. Some races, Carlyle argued against the economists like Smith and Mill, were inherently lazy and would fail to lead productive lives unless forced to do so (Carlyle 1849).

Most importantly, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was the fact that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and all entitled to liberty, that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.” (see

Bigelow rightly locates the context for the debate between classical political economy and its critics in the “Irish problem.” And here the issue of character versus institutions was of paramount importance. Bigelow suggests that classical political economy saw poverty as “atonement” for behavior (p. 2). This, he argues, was the political economy that “Coleridge, Carlyle, and Ruskin loved to hate” (p. 4). What is less clear is that, on the other side of this, the critics of classical political economy made the case that poverty was the result of innate human characteristics — the unwillingness to work under any circumstances. Carlyle’s argument was used by the critics of classical political economy, some of whom eschewed his polemical excesses but who nonetheless retained his basic assumptions of variability among human-folks, and inherent laziness of some. For example, the political economist and social commentator, W. R. Greg, attacked Mill for arguing that land reform would help solve the problem of poverty in Ireland:

“Make them peasant-proprietors,” says Mr. Mill. But Mr. Mill forgets that, till you change the character of the Irish cottier, peasant-proprietorship would work no miracles. He would fall behind the instalments of his purchase-money, and would be called upon to surrender his farm. He would often neglect it in idleness, ignorance, jollity and drink, get into debt, and have to sell his property to the newest owner of a great estate. … In two generations Ireland would again be England’s difficulty, come back upon her in an aggravated form. Mr. Mill never deigns to consider that an Irishman is an Irishman, and not an average human being — an idiomatic and idiosyncratic, not an abstract, man (Greg 1869, p. 78). In Greg’s view, the Irish would always be improvident and overly populous because they were impulsive and sexually debauched.

It is important to note that, along with the mathematical statistician, Francis Galton, Greg co-founded the British eugenics movement. In so doing, Greg began by attacking classical economics of the Malthusian sort. Malthus worried about the quantity of births, which, Greg argued, missed the real problem: it was not that too many births, but that too many Irish births, were occurring (Greg 1875). The caricature of the improvident Irishman was strenuously resisted by John Stuart Mill, who held that, contrary to this “vulgar” explanation for their poverty, the Irish were poor because of institutional failure:

Is it not, then, bitter satire on the mode in which opinions are formed on the most important problems of human nature and life, to find public instructors of the greatest pretension, imputing the backwardness of Irish industry, and the want of energy of the Irish people in improving their condition, to a peculiar indolence and insouciance in the Celtic race? Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences. What race would not be indolent and insouciant when things are so arranged, that they derive no advantage from forethought or exertion? … It speaks nothing against the capacities of industry in human beings, that they will not exert themselves without motive. No labourers work harder, in England or America, than the Irish; but not under a cottier system. (Mill 1848, p. 319)

Starting in the 1850s, leaders of the Anthropological Society of London devoted a great deal of attention to the problem of whether the Irish constituted a separate — and inferior — race, in which case their problems might be solved only by such drastic means as eugenics. In the popular press such as Punch, images of the supposedly impulsive and debauched Irish appeared frequently throughout these two decades (see, all serving to reinforce the argument that the Irish needed either looking after (paternalism), or something darker. An important part of the social fabric of this period, then, is the biological “science” which in some cases worked in concert with literary criticism. As Bigelow rightly notes, race and nationality were conflated. What, perhaps, remains underemphasized is the extent to which the negro and the Irish were intermixed in social and “scientific” commentary. As one indication of this conflation the President of the Anthropological Society of London in 1870 developed the racial category, “Africanoid Celt,” and an “Index of Nigrescence” to measure how close the Irish were to the negro (Beddoe 1870).

Bigelow’s project holds that the literary criticisms of markets in Dickens and Gaskell were, eventually, incorporated into a new economics which placed the consumer at the forefront and removed economic analysis from political or social concerns. He might well expand on this argument, the crux of his book. Even in his Theory of Political Economy Theory, Jevons makes it clear that man is a social, trading being. Bigelow rightly notes that race and gender are not removed from economic analysis with the insistence of marginalism. And, of course, Jevons wrote extensively about the very social phenomena that preoccupied the classical economists (Peart 2004).

Transitions are always a bit murky. Yet the key question which Bigelow’s important work forces us to examine in historical context, is clear: whether poverty is best explained in terms of choices within an institutional setting, or inherent human nature (pp. 69-70). On this, it seems clear that the classical economists differed from their critics. Classical political economy placed the (same, social) human at the center of analysis, and explained variations in observed outcomes in terms of history, luck and incentives. Their critics would add another explanation for observed poverty: human nature. I would place Jevons in this latter category, at least as far as the explanation for Irish poverty was concerned. Then, the question that emerged was how does the “expert” fix poverty if poverty is the result of inherent poor judgment, a purported failure of national or ethnic character? This opened up the door for a nasty set of eugenic policy recommendations that followed the transition to post-classical economics — restrictions on immigration flows (from so-called ethnic failures) and births among the “unfit” (Peart and Levy 2005). The importance of Bigelow’s project is that it gives us another lens through which to view the analytical underpinnings of such policies.


Beddoe, John 1870. “Anthropology and Politics: Kelts and Saxons.” The Anthropological Review viii: 211-213.

[Carlyle, Thomas.] 1849. “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 40: 670-679.

[Greg, W. R.] 1869. “Realities of Irish Life.” Quarterly Review 126: 61-80.

Greg, W. R. 1875. Enigmas of Life. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company.

Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2001-2002. “Secret History of the Dismal Science.”

Mill, J. S. 1848. The Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. Volume 2 of Collected Works. Edited by J. M. Robson. University of Toronto Press, 1965

Peart, Sandra J. 2004. “Introduction”, in W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses, 4 volumes. Edited by Sandra J. Peart. London: Routledge, pp. 1-26.

Peart, Sandra J., and David M. Levy 2005. The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher': From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economic Thought, forthcoming. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by W. B. Todd. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Whately, Richard. 1831. Introductory Lectures on Political Economy. London: B. Fellowes.

Sandra Peart is professor of economics at Baldwin-Wallace College. She has published articles on the economics and methodology of W. S. Jevons and J.S. Mill, rationality and intertemporal choice, eugenics, and the transition to neoclassicism, in journals such as the Manchester School, the Canadian Journal of Economics, the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, the European Journal of Political Economy, the History of Political Economy, and the Journal of the History of Economic Thought. She edited W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses for Routledge (2004) and co-edited, with David Levy, The Political Economy of Slavery (2004), for Thoemmes Continuum. She is Vice-President of the History of Economics Society, and serves on the Editorial Board of JHET. Her book on the transition from Classical to Post-Classical economics, co-authored with David Levy, will be published by Michigan Press in 2005: The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century