23. A Book of Accounts

Object type: Alexander Brodie, A New and Easy Method of Book-keeping, or Instructions for a Methodical keeping of Merchants Accounts, by Way of Debtor and Creditor after the Italian Manner (London, 1722).

Materials: Paper and ink, leather and boards.

© Image by Curator


I’d like to start with a vignette.  It happened in London, in roughly 1743.  Laetitia Pilkington, a hack-writer who is trying to make a go of it as a print-shop owner, is sitting at her shop-counter, jotting notes in an open book.  Two “very fine young Gentlemen” entered the shop.  Observing the large book before her, one of them demands to know if it is her account book; she replies that her revenue was limited and easily cast up, and that she was bad at math, though she “frequently dealt in Figures and Numbers.”

Pilkington led a hard and interesting life.  She was born in Ireland, married to a clergyman with literary pretensions, and later abandoned; she passed in and out of the acquaintance of several highly acclaimed authors, including Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) and Samuel Richardson (author of Clarissa, mentioned in Exhibit 25).   But she is best-known for her memoirs, the autobiography of a woman scraping by in the literary world of eighteenth-century London.  They are scandal-memoirs.  It has been suggested that most of Pilkington’s subscribers hoped to suppress the inconvenient truths Pilkington threatened to reveal or to invent. We know this, like so much else that we know about Pilkington, because she says so herself—in the memoirs.

Now, the “book of accounts” on her shop-counter seems to have been exactly these memoirs—or at least the first volume, which also contained an unusually high proportion of poetry (one poem of which appears in Exhibit 24).  The puns are the stuff that might have turned up in her poetry: figures are poetic figures, like metaphor, or ekphrasis; numbers are poetic numbers, which is to say, the structure of the poetic verse.  In other words, she was comfortable talking about poetry as something that could be composed on a shop counter—especially a shop counter where she bought and sold second-hand books.  Her book, itself, was just such a second-hand document, made up of recycled bits of other people’s verse.  And let me be quite clear: I am not accusing Pilkington of being a bad writer.  I am accusing her of being a successful writer-for-hire.  A vendor of second-hand goods, she wrote poetry the same way that she ran her shop.

When we think of genres of life-writing, especially life-writing that focuses on one’s self, we usually start and end with versions of autobiography—including memoir, journal, diary, and so on.  But we should include, as well, books of accounts, which were critical means whereby people invented themselves, and made themselves public to the world.  Double-entry accounting, which still a relatively new invention, was developed to solve a certain problem.  The problem was this: in a world of transoceanic and transcontinental exchange, how do you know if you can trust the person on the other end of a trade?  In many cases, the answer was the same—by opening one another’s books.  Accounting was, in other words, a means of establishing credit, which is another way of saying that it was a means of capturing character.  On this point, see Catherine Gallagher, Nobody's Story, and Mary Poovey, History of the Fact.

The point here is that account books were all along seen as a way of making private character public; they were an ethical genre.  The books of an honest dealer would always add up to zero; her credits would be balanced by her debits—with a few little categories like “profit” thrown in to show a fair reward for risk.  This is what it means to balance one’s books.  Balanced books are a way of making something private, like integrity, public.  But they do it at a curious cost; they assume that people are at the junction of comings and goings, buyings and sellings.  In other words, the self is the nexus of a continual flux of exchange.

The book like the one that is the object of this exhibit was one of numerous handbooks springing up at about the time Pilkington was writing; they were designed to teach people in the rising middle class how to balance their books.  (The one in this exhibit is particularly interesting; it is engraved by George Bickham, who, as an expert in reproducing handwriting, has an important place in copyright law-- see Exhibit 27.)  It is fair to think that more than a few passed through Pilkington’s shop.  It is no coincidence that accounting manuals and blank books of accounts start making their appearance at the same time as the novel; the rise of the novel might more generously be called something like the rise of the personal account.  And along with the novel were various genres aimed at the middling sort—those merchant classes with leisure time and money to spend.  Like the novel, the account book was one of many ways that the middle class witnessed itself coming into being.  And so there were numerous books, paintings, and plays—George Lillo’s The London Merchant is one example—that turned on an account book or two, for books of accounts, when read with a knowing eye, were drama as high as any Haymarket play.

I make this point at length partly because I find account books endlessly interesting—but partly because I want to notice that the notebook or library isn’t the only way of modeling cognition.  John Locke owns a library; he models the mind as a container of objects, things that enter the mind and stay there.  Pilkington, however, didn’t work in a library; she worked in a second-hand bookstall.  I will have more to say in another exhibit (Exhibit 24) about Pilkington’s neurophysiological theory; it is enough at this point to say that she suspects that all learning is counterbalanced by forgetting: gain by loss.  And why not?  It is only the collector who thinks that the mind is a collection.

In its early form, “invention” doesn’t mean creating something from nothing; rather, it means the learning and labor that marks something as a commodity.  This is a system based on the circulation of goods, in which everything is second-hand.  In what is less a defense than a celebration, Pilkington insists that she has “nothing to boast of as a Writer, but a great Memory”; she vaunts that she was only able to write a full three-volume memoirs by borrowing a “Taste of the Wit” of such writers as “Shakespeare, Milton, &c.”  Indeed, she argues, Alexander Pope is just like her, a great poet because a great borrower.  “Pope has stolen from Milton,” she remarks; “Milton has stolen from Shakespeare; Shakespeare has plundered nature.”  “All writers,” she says, “are thieves.”

In a twist that anticipates a similarly brilliant moment by Laurence Sterne, this isn’t simply a defense against plagiarism.  It is a fully imagined poetic process.  Indeed, even her defense against plagiarism is stolen from such writers as John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Joseph Warton.  (“Those anticipating Rascals the Ancients,” Pilkington quotes Swift as saying, “have left nothing for us poor Moderns to say”; Swift, for his part, was merely paraphrasing Addison, and so it goes.)  It is therefore not in spite of, but because of, her numerous transcriptions and plagiarisms that she enrolls herself in the tradition that flows from Shakespeare, announcing herself as “the Cream of Historians, the Mirror of Poets.”

I will just close, then, by saying that she called her autobiography her “memoirs,” but she might as well have called it her book of accounts.  The account book provides the metaphorical source domain for Pilkington’s account of cognition and the poetic process. It casts her memory as a working record of instantly available materials and transactions, the “register” or “copy” of what she sees and hears, and intends to put to use.  Her memoirs by this account are only the record of a circulating mass of literature which Pilkington consumed, stole, rewrote, produced, or recycled, and which (therefore) far exceeds that record.  The pamphlet, engraving, and used-book shop provides an apt model for this sort of literary production, which is less about literary fame than about the perpetual circulation of goods and ideas.  Fumerton remarks that “delivering an ‘account’ or ‘reckoning’ of one’s life—what we might call ‘autobiography’—could belong only to the respectably settled”; but the crossings of accounting and life writing emerge as a more general sign of the dispossessed, as being unsettled, or being instruments of and in the exchange of goods.