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The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914

Author(s):Finn, Margot C.
Reviewer(s):Ugolini, Laura

Published by EH.NET (April 2004)

Margot C. Finn, The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii + 362 pp. $70 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-82342-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Laura Ugolini, Department of History, University of Wolverhampton

Margot C. Finn’s study of the nature of personal credit relations in English culture and society between 1740 and 1914, The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914, is an ambitious and important book. Using a rich and impressive range of sources, the author shows how in a period that saw key changes taking place not only in the arena of industrial production, but also in those of retailing and consumption, notions of economic individualism and of freedom of contract cannot fully explain the nature of contemporary economic relations: reciprocity, gifting, personal connections and character all remained of fundamental importance, even as England developed into a “modern” consumer society. And although Finn’s claims that historians of consumption have “largely discounted the role of credit in shaping the purchasing process” (p. 17) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is perhaps exaggerated, it is certainly the case that this topic has not yet received the scholarly attention it clearly deserves. By focusing on personal debt relations, the author seeks to shed new light on “the conflicting legal structures, commercial customs, cultural beliefs and systems of representation that shaped economic obligations,” (p. 2) and indeed consumer practices, at this arguably crucial period in English history. There is little doubt that in this book she more than achieves these aims.

The book is divided into three sections, each of which concentrates on a particular aspect of personal debt, using a different set of sources, and to some extent a different methodological approach. These are: “Debt and Credit in English Memory and Imagination”; “Imprisonment for Debt and the Economic Individual”; and “Petty Debts and the Modernisation of English Law.”

The first section uses contemporary novels, autobiographies and diaries to explore both attitudes towards consumer debt, and individuals’ day-to-day engagements and negotiations with the consumer market. Here the influence on the author of the anthropological literature on gifting practices is clearest, as she traces through novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer, or Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, the continued importance of “time-honoured systems of moral accounting antipathetic to purely profit-oriented economic exchange” (p. 27). According to this view, debt was not a moral or ethical failing, but rather a misfortune outside the individual debtor’s control. Finn emphasizes the continued (although shifting) importance of gift exchanges and of personal connections in consumer relations, while being careful not to romanticize such practices: they served, after all, “to sustain unequal power relations in English society” (p. 30). Diaries and autobiographies provide further evidence of their authors’ (often understandable) reluctance to adhere to consumer practices based purely on cash transactions, and their recourse to “gifting, cadging, borrowing, haggling, credit dealing, pawning …” in order to obtain necessary or desired commodities (p. 75).

As Finn points out, attitudes and ideas about what constituted acceptable and appropriate purchasing and gifting practices did not remain unchanged throughout the period she considers. For example, she suggests that the “neighbourly gifts of produce, cloth and trinkets [that] constantly punctuate Georgian diaries” were often replaced in the Victorian and Edwardian periods by “presents made to family members on birthdays and holidays” (p. 87). Here the argument might usefully have been pushed further. It would certainly have been worth speculating whether the very narrative based on the notion of newer and “modern” consumer practices and economic transactions progressively taking the place of older “traditional” modes of exchange should be revisited. If, as Finn clearly demonstrates, the eighteenth century did not see the sudden triumph of economic individualism and of the cash nexus, perhaps it could be questioned how far these concepts can be used in relation to the twentieth century. After all, gift exchange may have progressively been replaced by market exchange in the course of the nineteenth century, but “Market exchange itself … was hardly ruled by commodification and the cash nexus … the norms of retail practice ensured that social forms of debt and credit persistently shaped Victorian and Edwardian consumer relations” (pp. 88-89).

The book’s second section focuses on what happened when all else failed, and debt repayment was not (or seemed not to be) forthcoming: the practice of imprisoning debtors. Finn places the debtors’ prison within the context of the evolving body of criminal law, and of the changing role of imprisonment within it, which “allow[ed] the customary privileges and convivial conventions of the debtors’ prison to persist (and even to expand) in the interstices of the emerging penal complex” (p. 109). Here it is not always clear whether changing legal and custodial practices brought about changes in attitudes towards debtors and towards consumer debt, or the other way round. This is understandable, perhaps, given the highly ambiguous nature of the debtors’ prison, especially before nineteenth century reforms: meant to contain, yet porous, riotous, yet highly regulated, meant to be separate, yet deeply involved in the contemporary consumer market. Indeed, while “Intended to encourage debtors to settle with their creditors [imprisonment] … often served instead to confirm their recalcitrant opposition to discharging their contractual obligations” (p. 148). However, Finn is surely right in identifying the increase (and perceived increase) in plebeian consumer activity and systems of credit as key to changed attitudes towards debt and debtors, enshrined in law in 1861 and 1869 by acts that effectively limited imprisonment for debt to the laboring population. Committed to prison by the new county courts, “these penal debtors were now classified — by law as by much public opinion — as culpable agents rather than unfortunate victims of circumstance” (p. 189)

Shifting attitudes towards personal credit, which increasingly focused on plebeian consumers as ill-intentioned and dishonest, rather than as unfortunate, also feature centrally in the final section of the book. This section takes a step back from prison, and examines the disputes, negotiations and often highly arbitrary settlements that took place in small-claims courts, from eighteenth century “equitable” courts of conscience to early twentieth century county courts. It is at the very end of this section that Finn introduces further participants in the debate over credit and debt: those Victorian and Edwardian traders who, while “flocking to the new county courts to enforce their debtors’ contracts, joining trade protection societies … and loudly proclaiming their allegiance to the cash nexus … remained hostages to traditions of consumer activity rooted in credit, character and connection” (p. 280). Traders like the London wholesale grocers James Budgett and Son, who, being without access to reliable information about their customers’ economic standing, were forced to make business decisions based on highly uncertain evaluations of their debtors’ character and moral probity.

The firm of Budgett and Son stands out in the book’s narrative because of the unusual richness and completeness of their archives, which the author makes full and innovative use of. However, this is just one business among many others, including retailers, trade protection societies and credit drapers, which operated within an economic context that even in the early twentieth century was far from conforming to a simple model of individualistic and impersonal market relations. Retailers and traders such as Budgett and Son join this book’s fascinating cast of characters, whose hitherto under-researched ideas, practices and expedients inform and enrich this highly recommended study into the role of personal debt in English culture.

Laura Ugolini is a Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Wolverhampton, UK, where she is also the Director of the Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution (CHORD). She is currently writing a book on Menswear and Manliness: Clothing and Consumption in Britain, 1880-1939 (Ashgate, forthcoming 2004).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII