Golden Hill Roundtable: “Commerce is Trust”

This week at The Junto, we’ll be featuring a roundtable on Francis Spufford’s 2016 novel, Golden Hill (London: Faber & Faber, 2016). Set in colonial New York city, and written in self-conscious homage to eighteenth-century literary style, Golden Hill has plenty of resonance for anyone interested in the period. Following my post today, we’ll hear from Junto members Jordan Taylor and Katy Lasdow, as well as Hannah Farber, and a Q&A with Spufford himself. We will warn you if a post contains plot spoilers!

goldenhill.jpgMany novels are about struggles to know the truth, and to live in a world of ambiguity, secrets, and false pretences. In Golden Hill, those themes are given eighteenth-century specificities. They appear in all sorts of symbolic guises, but none more frequently and clearly stated than the murky, miscellaneous substance of eighteenth-century money. If Golden Hill is a novel about what it means to take something—or somebody—at face value, that metaphor is made literal when the protagonist Richard Smith walks into a merchant’s office in the book’s opening pages and presents “a paper worth a thousand pounds.”

Smith’s bill is one thing: to assure himself of its veracity, the merchant Lovell inspects it for the paper’s watermark, the handwriting and signature of the counterparty in London. What Smith is given once the bill is proven is another. Along with a pile of foreign coinage, he gets “a pile of creased and folded slips… of varying shapes and sizes; some limp and torn; some leathery with grease.” The colonial money of New York and its neighbours becomes, for Smith, a metaphor for uncertainty and alienation. To colonials themselves, of course, that money looked quite different. As Benjamin Franklin and many historians have agreed, the printing of paper money was a crucial boost to local economies, providing a cheap medium through which trade and investment could expand.[1]

Golden Hill, like plenty of recent historiography, plays on a tacit link between the financial uncertainty of the eighteenth century—an epoch of rampant debt, risky speculation, and contested political-economic ideology—and our own time. Merchants in both colonies and metropoles would have agreed with Spufford’s Lovell when he says that “commerce is trust.” The value of paper money relied on a growing economy, one that fostered trust and confidence in its users. But trust and confidence also come with a dark side: the possibility of failure, or fraud.

Take the case of Tom Bell, “one of the earliest American criminals to pass himself off as a gentleman,” as historian Steven Bullock has put it. According to the Pennsylvania Gazette of 1743—just a few years before the events of Golden Hill—Bell’s schemes included “forging Bills, Letters of Credit &c.”[2] In any society where social and economic change is accelerating, and therefore the cultural markers and forms of presentation in which they’re encoded are also subject to more than usual uncertainty, fraud becomes not just a possibility but a likelihood. Within limits, forged currency can even help economies grow just as much as the genuine article.[3]

As readers of Golden Hill, we face the challenge of judging Smith’s true worth—and his real motives—on the basis of how he presents himself to us. It’s easy to be taken in by his performance, but a certain uneasiness about him remains part of the novel’s atmosphere. Just as at least one character uses card games as a way of trying to see into a man’s heart, we all need a method for judging character and credibility. Deception of all kinds abounded in competitive societies like colonial New York. It’s not just Spufford’s book that seems to have been born out of that crisis of knowledge and confidence—so, perhaps, somewhere in the eighteenth century, was the modern novel itself.[4]


[1] See for example Steven Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 76; Christine Desan, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). For Franklin’s early thoughts see his Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency (Philadelphia, 1729).

[2] Steven Bullock, “A Mumper Among the Gentle: Tom Bell, Colonial Confidence Man,” The William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 2 (Apr. 1998): 231-258, quotations at 236 and 232.

[3] See Katherine Smoak, “The Weight of Necessity: Counterfeit Coins in the British Atlantic World, circa 1760-1800,” The William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 3 (July 2017): 467-502.

[4] Mary Poovey, Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)

@tomcutterham

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  1. Pingback: Golden Hill as Historical Historical Fiction « The Junto

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