Emotional Historians? A review of Andrew Popp’s Entrepreneurial Families

What happens when historians fall in love with their subjects? Love is supposed to make us blind, isn’t it? Does this mean we can’t write ‘objectively’ about the object of our fascination and affection? I am regularly besotted by some of the people I study, from the good (the adorable Northumbrian engraver, Thomas Bewick) to the bad (William Ettrick, the wife-beating justice of the peace), to the lovely (Mary Robinson, who seduced theatre audiences, princes, and her readers).

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It is not just individuals. I fell for a whole family while researching my last book Parenting in England; the Shaws: John and Elizabeth who grew a family and a successful business in Staffordshire in the first half of the 19th century. Reading their correspondence through their courtship and marriage (1811-1839) created a powerful picture for me of the couple’s admirable characters, their loving relationship with each other and their children and parents, and – in fact – the appeal of the minutiae of their daily lives.

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Thus I was excited to discover Andrew Popp’s book on the Shaws: Entrepreneurial Families: Business, Marriage, and Life in the Early Nineteenth Century (Studies in Business History, Pickering and Chatto, London, 2012). Although I was familiar with Professor Popp’s research into John Shaw’s activities as a commercial traveller, I had missed the monograph which was published in the same year as my book. Having now read this fine study of family and business life, two things strike me. First it is a book that ought to be read by family as well as business historians, for it fulfils Popp’s aim to achieve ‘a much fuller reintegration of’ the spheres of family, religion, and business, as well as the role of emotions in these domains (p. 5). Second, I guess that Popp also fell in love with the Shaws. So as well as a review, this post suggests that historians can become emotionally involved with their subjects without losing analytical rigour or skewing the resulting account.

Entrepreneurial Families is rather deceptive: an easy read, a case study of a likeable family and their entrepreneurship in the industrial revolution. Yet, in fact, it un-assumedly challenges many of the clichés about the meshed worlds of family and business. Popp demonstrates that middle-class entrepreneurs were not simply pulled along by the wave of new economic opportunities, using family instrumentally as an engine to extend business. In this book, the protagonists were agents in their own lives, making decisions based on far more complex reasons, which did not fall into either passive or strategic. I particularly like his description of John and Elizabeth’s relationship as an ‘unlimited partnership’ (p. 4). As he says: their entrepreneurship:

‘existed to service, sustain and nourish’ their marriage, ‘and in turn it was love and marriage that made entrepreneurship – and worldly success and comfort – meaningful’.

This sensitive integration of family, faith, and business is sustained throughout. Popp reminds us that religion was a powerful component of marriage-making for many people in the 19th century. John and Elizabeth negotiated each other’s faith and fears: Methodist Elizabeth and her family suspected that John, a Presbyterian, had Calvinistic beliefs and it was not until these doctrinal matters were settled that the couple proceeded to their union. Much of the ‘sense’ was on Elizabeth’s side in this phase of their relationship; ‘sensibility’ was John’s forte. Like many men he had a profound desire to be married; declaring in only his fourth letter to Elizabeth:

‘however happy I am in seeing or hearing from you, it bears little proportion to that pleasure I anticipate in of ere long I hope being permitted to call you mine’ (p. 50).

The reader of the couple’s correspondence over the several decades of their marriage cannot help but be besotted by their enduring love for each other. For the Shaws correspondence built intimacy and bridged separation. As Elizabeth wrote, when John was away on his commercial travelling, ‘I feel as if part of self was torn from me’ (p. 21). When his letters arrived, not only were they a means by which they could converse, she seems to have felt that her self-identity was completed. So intimate are these letters that at times I wonder how this respectable couple would feel that 21st century voyeurs were reading Elizabeth’s longing. From the marital bed she wrote of her husband’s return home: ‘

‘I feel as if I never should be satisfied with kissing and embracing you so you must prepare yourself for it. Nay I even talk of eating you …’ (p. 57).

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Popp’s especial strength in analysing the Shaws’ union lies not in demonstrating the emotional and physical companionship of their marriage and its far from stereotyped division into separate spheres, but in assessing its place within the family business. John business was as a ‘market-maker’ from the inception of the business around 1805 through his partnership with Henry Crane in 1815, to expansion overseas by the mid-century. Rooted in a warehouse in Wolverhampton, John nonetheless worked tirelessly as a factor selling hardware goods across his commercial region of Staffordshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, Derbyshire and West and South Yorkshire, often visiting the industrial centres of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Liverpool and Manchester. Here family and business pulled in opposite directions for John disliked commercial travelling. His letters to his mother and to Elizabeth recount its hardships as he travelled bad roads in vile weather, stayed in awful accommodation, and fought his numerous competitors. His emotions were just as battered during his peripatetic decades, as he spent weeks and months away from his much loved wife, children and home.

John was not alone, however, sharing his entrepreneurship with his employee and later partner, and his family. This is where Popp’s background as a business historian is so essential for he emphasises how undirected business development could be, a factor perhaps exacerbated by the family dynamic of many businesses. Popp thus defines the business partners’ actions as ‘active, creative, imaginative’ rather than as discovering and exploiting autonomous opportunities (p. 61). The best example is the firm’s expansion into Calcutta in 1834. As Popp explains, this was not a planned business trajectory but an unexpected response to individuals and circumstances. Family and emotions still played a part. Though the Indian trade was successful if demanding to run it had personal costs. Shaw and Crane’s long–term employee/friend went out to head the firm and died there after 12 years. Even more distressingly for John and Elizabeth, their 24 year old eldest son visited the business in 1839 and died rapidly from tropical disease.

The more mundane practicalities of managing work and family were not easy either. Flexibility in gendered roles was one way to proceed.  Although Elizabeth acknowledged her role to obey her husband because God commanded it, she nonetheless selected a spouse who would not master her. She explained to John that she

‘would not consent to marry a man I did not consider reasonable. I considered this over before I promis’d to become your wife’ (p. 53).

While she did lead a more ‘domestic’ life than John , during his business trips, Elizabeth discussed trade with him, kept him up to date with local trade and banking failures, added notes to the business letters written by his partner, and kept an eye on the warehouse and its staff. Equally, when John returned home from his commercial travelling, he would husband home and family, relishing his hands-on fathering in play, at mealtimes, and caring for the children when they were ill, while Elizabeth visited her family in Colne and Rochdale – not just for pleasure, but to take care of her parents or siblings, and to work in the family shop (run by her mother rather than her father who spent long periods away from home due to mental health problems). Similarly, where material comforts were concerned, both Shaws wanted to form and furnish a home that offered a snug refuge for the family circle.

And this focus is revealed in their family/kinship, friendship and trade networks for Dr Popp shows that the first two were the strongest most integrated categories and that their trade network was fairly impersonal and relatively long-distance. In fact the Shaws

‘prized self-reliance above all else, received little familial financing for their enterprise, tended to keep affect and business as separate as possible, and forged relationships that were emotionally and spiritually sustaining rather than promising of worldly advancement. (p. 96)’

Clearly, Popp became a fan of the Shaws just as I did. And though both of us invested our emotions in the family it did not affect the way we interpreted them and their actions and activities, for John and Elizabeth remain the same people in both of our publications. When I read their correspondence the Shaws emerged as fully-formed people: articulate, considerate, supportive, loving, and kind. Here is Popp’s conclusion: John and Elizaeth

‘were always more than the sum of their historical correlates; entrepreneur, capitalists, paterfamilias and mater, man and woman. They each had a strong individuality that was never more alive than in their relationship with one another’ (pp. 130-1).

What is reassuring is ‘my’ Shaws are exactly the same as Popp’s Shaws in his wonderful account. This surely goes some way to challenging the problematic concept of objectivity and the scholar’s emotional distance?

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