F

rom the start, biographies of businessmen cast themselves as educational tools through which to achieve two aims: learning to interpret the characters encountered in the business world in order to discern the honest from the fraudulent, the inept or lazy from those most likely to succeed; and learning the skills and qualities that were most worthy of emulation. The latter aim, however, looks more ambiguous in texts such as Fortunes Made in Business. How, for instance, is the reader to emulate "the magic of mechanical power and inventive genius applied to the cheapening of some article ofevery-day consumption," when "magic" and "genius" are unique and unbidden powers? The texts frequently portray what is crucial about their subjects' work as a matter of unrepresentable and therefore compelling glamour. Talk of "secret toil" and "intricate and delicate operations" stands in for the mundane details of the process of invention in the story of S. C. Lister; the scene of Sir Henry Bessemer's days and nights of study and labor is a "fast-locked chamber, holding within its unseen and mysterious monster." Even if the necessity of guarding proprietary trade secrets lies behind this uncommunicativeness (as Bessemer's biography suggests), the workaday explanation pales beside the dramatic rhetoric. The result of these tropes is to turn the businessman from a representative and imitable example to a larger-than-life figure whose achievement stems from unique, innate qualities that can be admired, but hardly learned or even fully comprehended. [89]

Bibliography

Fortunes Made un Business: Series of Original Sketches. Biographical and Anecdotic, from the Recent History of Industry and Commerce, by Various writers. 3 vols. London: 1884-87.

Hunt, Aeron. Personal Business: Character and Commerce in Victorian Literature and Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. Pp. 225 + x.[Review by George P. Landow]


Last modified 26 January 2015