All Commentary
Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Get Credit and Capital Will Follow

The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope is famous neither for the brevity of his novels nor for the biting satire they contain. This makes a satire coming in under 200 pages something of an outlier. However, The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson is not just unusual for its brevity and its satire. It is also unusual—and of particular interest to readers of The Freeman—for its single-minded focus on commerce.

The novel tracks the rise and fall of the fortunes of the small haberdashery run by three partners—the Brown, Jones, and Robinson of the title. Brown supplied the initial 4,000 pounds of capital, while his son-in-law Jones serves as the main floor walker and Robinson is the firm’s advertising expert. Jones married into the family in the hopes of inheriting some money from his bride’s mother. Robinson is a suitor for Brown’s other daughter.

It’s clear from the start that the firm has a shaky foundation. With only 4,000 pounds to buy, fit, stock, and operate the shop, the firm is on a very tight budget, and the partners disagree entirely about how to use the money—primarily about whether they should operate on capital or on credit. This disagreement is the central conflict of the novel. As Robinson says:

British commerce is not now what it was. It is becoming open and free like everything else that is British—open to the poor man as well as to the rich. That bugbear Capital is a crumbling old tower . . . Credit is the polished shaft of the temple on which the new world of trade will be content to lean. . . . Get credit and capital will follow. . . . Then wherewith shall we polish credit? I answer the question at once. With the pumice-stone and sand-paper of advertisement.

Robinson insists upon using Brown’s 4,000 pounds only for advertising. In moves that will strike current shoppers as entirely familiar, he names the shop “Magenta” after the newly invented dye, paints it magenta, hires magenta-liveried footmen and trumpeters, and tags the store—which is located at 81 Bishopsgate Street—with the nonsensical but undeniable slogan “9 times 9 is 81.” Aside from such decorative detail, Robinson’s other great advertising strategy is to write flyers with lushly detailed descriptions of items that the shop does not yet own—because they are spending almost nothing on actual stock—in hopes of bringing customers in to purchase the few items they do have.

Brown naturally objects to this mode of doing business, considering it to be tantamount to lying to his customers. Upon reading one such flyer he argues, “But George, we haven’t got ‘em. . . . And if we had ‘em we should be ruined to sell them at such prices as that. I did want to do a genuine trade in stockings.”  In response, Robinson replies, “Advertisements are profitable not because they are believed, but because they are attractive. Once understand that and you will cease to ask for truth.”

For a while this house built on sand manages to run reasonably well, though even the partners are unable to say how well, since keeping the accounts for a company that’s running entirely on credit is a bit tricky. Inevitably, though, the shop winds up in trouble for advertising goods it does not possess. From merely writing flyers that describe fictional goods, the firm has descended, at the suggestion of Jones, to displaying high quality goods marked with low prices, which are replaced by similar but lower quality goods when customers want to buy them. Of this, Robinson says:

There can be no doubt that Jones was very wrong . . . But nevertheless, we cannot pass on to the narration of a circumstance as it did occur without expressing our strong abhorrence of those ladies who are desirous of purchasing cheap goods to the manifest injury of the trades men from whom they buy them. The ticketing of goods at prices below their value is not to our taste, but the purchasing of such goods is less so. The lady who will take advantages of a tradesman, that she may fill her house with linen, or cover her back with finery, at his cost, and in a manner which her own means would not fairly permit is, in our estimation—a robber.

This inversion of the usual accusation that the merchant is robbing the customer serves not only as satire, but also as a fascinating thought experiment in the subverting of our expectations for discussions of commerce. It is also a reminder of how firmly established the bourgeois virtues already were in Victorian London and how firmly established they remain today. When  a customer gives the partners their comeuppance and the shop begins to spiral into decline we are entertained, and we are satisfied. Our sense of shock demands justice.

We are shocked by the ways in which Brown, Jones, and Robinson operate their shop. And we are shocked because we live our lives with the assumption that merchants will deal fairly with us, that advertisements will be truthful (though perhaps somewhat hyperbolic), and that the goods we request will be the goods we receive.  Trollope’s novel is a satire that can only work when “everyone knows” how a shop should be run and can appreciate the hundreds of unspoken rules of the game that this shop violates. In this sense it is the best kind of satire—one that is an appreciation of the fact that there is an acceptable way to behave, and an attack on violations of that norm.