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Abstract

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, British political economists invented the “doctrine of rent” to explain how the limited powers of the soil are turned into the returns of property ownership. “Rendering Empire” is a literary history of this political economic concept. It shows how writers of the British romantic period both contributed and responded to a new conception of nature and value that arose from a series of crises in Britain’s domestic and colonial territories. Whereas eighteenth-century sciences of wealth had conceived value to be rooted in nature’s providential gifts, the classical political economists of the nineteenth century saw rent as a product of nature’s declining capacity to sustain human communities. Reading across the archives of Romantic literature and the political economy of imperialism, I argue that Britain’s transition from an empire of “improvement” to a global rent-collector coincided with this broad shift in the relationship between nature and value. My title “Rendering Empire” points to the representational and poetic implications imbedded in the word “rent,” which derives from the Latin “reditus” to signify both a profitable “return” and a tributary “rendering.” As a category of economic surplus that is not simply made, but rendered from a tenant to an owner of land, rent both activates and re-inscribes a relationship of power across a hierarchy of property and possession. As such, it reveals how the creation of value depends on the impositions of law over the natural powers of the land. “Rendering Empire” shows how romantic-era writings in and about Britain’s agrarian peripheries trace the complex dynamics of natural and imperial power that give rise to rent. In doing so, these texts reimagine the political, ecological, and epistemological forms embedded in landed property. I argue that the global-regional literatures of British romanticism innovated received literary genres—especially romance—in order to demonstrate the contradictions of liberal political economy when applied to Britain’s colonial territories. Literary scholars have demonstrated the role of commerce and labor in the development of novelistic and poetic form, but they have neglected the force of landed property on the literary imagination. In focusing on the third term of classical political economy’s tripartite conception of wealth (stock, wages, and rent), “Rendering Empire” shows how the writing of imperial rent demanded a radical reinterpretation of the genre of romance. Romance had been theorized during the enlightenment as a genre rooted in the landed economies of ancient feudalism. Whereas the popular appeal of eighteenth-century gothic romance novels derived from the window they were supposed to provide into ancient manners, I show how the key tropes of romance were redeployed after the 1790s in narratives of the colonial periphery, in ways that disordered progressivist notions of civilizational development rooted in the improvement of the land. If romance is the preeminent genre of the ruin, I argue that its “romantic” displacement throughout the spaces of imperial rent reveal empire as a system that turns ruination into value. The four chapters of “Rendering “Empire” are arranged geographically, each focusing on a distinct region of liberal-imperial transformation (Ireland, America, the West Indies, and India). Chapter One, “Development, Romance, and the Fiction of Feudalism,” looks at how Maria Edgeworth’s treatment of absentee landlordism in her Irish Tales upsets the distinction put forward in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations between “natural” and “unnatural” development. Chapter Two, “The Geography of Atlantic Capital and the Romance of Accumulation,” reads William Wordsworth’s Excursion (1814) with John Thelwall’s The Daughter of Adoption (1801) to show how the figurative ideal of America as natural ground of Republican virtue was challenged by a theoretical and poetic linkage between European enclosure and frontier slavery. In Chapter Three, “Annihilated Property: Slavery and Reproduction After Abolition,” James Montgomery’s The West Indies (1809), Matthew Lewis’ Journal of a West India Proprietor (1815-19/1834), and Cynric Williams Hamel, the Obeah Man (1827) reveal the decline of West Indian property following the Slave-Trade Abolition Act (1807) as the result of an incompatibility between tropical fecundity (of land and of slaves) and liberal political economy. Chapter Four, “Bare Possession: Property and History in a Liberal Empire,” pairs James Mill’s History of British India (1817) with Walter Scott’s The Chronicles of the Canongate (1827) to explore how a liberal-imperial conception of sovereignty (premised not on the “romance of property” but on the global management of scarcity and subsistence) demands the invention of new genres of historical fiction.

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