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Of late, the field of Victorian studies has evinced a renewed interest in the impact of economics and finance on nineteenth-century literature and culture. Examples of this trend include Gail Turley Houston’s From Dickens to Dracula (2005); Kathleen Blake’s The Pleasures of Benthamism (2009); and Nancy Henry and Cannon Schmitt’s anthology, Victorian Investments (2009). Sara Malton’s compelling study Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture joins this discussion by examining the central role of economic deception in the realms of finance, literary narrative, and personal identity. In her introduction, Malton attests that she will not use forgery as an all-encompassing term to describe betrayal in the novel, but instead will treat it as a historically specific practice that presented “acute challenges to deeply held cultural beliefs about the primacy of individuality, identity, and origins” (15). Through a diachronic study of literary and nonfictional texts from the 1840s to the fin de siècle, she makes a persuasive case for the multifaceted role of financial forgery in the Victorian period.
Malton takes a two-pronged approach to her topic, examining forgery in terms of its deceptiveness and its longstanding associations with capital punishment (until the 1832 and 1837 Forgery Acts, the crime was punishable by death). Malton argues that this legislative aspect of forgery was instrumental to its traumatic associations throughout the century. It represented an affront to the most “hallowed Victorian values: the primacy of labor and the value ascribed to an ethos of industry and deferred gratification; the knowledge of cultural and individual history; the ability to acquire such knowledge through visual signs; and the position of origins as stable and culturally determinant” (3).
Malton’s book consists of four chapters, framed by a contextualizing introduction and a forward-looking conclusion that considers forgery from a modernist perspective. Drawing on Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841) and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), the first chapter discusses forgery in relation to capital punishment. Both texts are haunted by the “image of the forger at the gallows” (15), a specter from the past that simultaneously points to the destabilizing aspects of forgery and signals the complicity of legal and financial institutions in perpetuating this crime and meting out violent forms of retribution to contain it. While Malton might have pushed a little further on the intersections of forgery and corporeal violence, she does make the strong case that the cultural memory of the severe punishment allotted to forgers implicated England’s financial system. This argument is particularly convincing in her discussion of The Woman in White and Collins’s 1858 fictional biography of the forger Henry Fauntleroy, who had blamed the bank of England for his crimes.
In my view, Malton’s second chapter—on forgery and white-collar crimes in the nineteenth century—is the strongest in the volume. It offers an excellent account of the tension between narratives of fallen womanhood and male forgery in Elisabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) and Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857). These texts function through the “pairing of a male, financial forger and a female ‘forger’ of sorts, who is driven into schemes of concealment by both emotional and economic imperatives” (66). Malton’s analysis of the parallels between biological and financial illegitimacy in Ruth effectively foregrounds the connection between economic forgeries and the production of “bastard” children.
The third and fourth chapters share the common purpose of exploring financial forgery in light of the great fears—and expectations—about the decline in economic and social values which marked the latter half of the nineteenth century. Chapter three offers insightful readings of a group of fictional texts that identify England’s imperial and foreign interventions as one of the root causes of its endangered markets: Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Malton’s specific interpretations of these narratives are often more provocative than her overall point that “anxieties about the ‘return of the repressed’ are mapped onto plots of domestic financial exploitation” (79). While, when taken alone, this idea is not particularly innovative, her supporting readings and discussions are. One of the most original parts of the chapter, for example, is her analysis of the ways in which Collins’s sensational plot anticipates fin-de-siècle gothic doublings. Malton contends that The Moonstone’s characters Franklin Blake and Godfrey Ablewhite, whom critics tend to position into a hero/villain binary, can “be seen as the Jekyll and Hyde of English culture…. The doubling of Blake and Ablewhite anticipates Stevenson’s narrative of the doppelganger that lurks within as an essential component of the hero’s identity” (93).
Although it provides a useful reading of Thomas Hardy’s often overlooked novel A Laodicean (1881), Malton’s final chapter on aestheticism is less successful than other parts of her study in differentiating forgery from general forms of fabulation and deception. The chapter works when she focuses on particular instances of economic forgery in texts by Hardy and Oscar Wilde—as in her intriguing observation that “the more fake” Dorian Gray becomes, “the more credit he has” (135)—but is not as convincing when it makes more predictable claims about aestheticism’s fascination with fabricated identities.
One of the most appealing aspects of Malton’s book is its productive defamiliarization of canonical texts. It invites us to revisit these works by identifying moments of forgery that, while easily overlooked, recast the narratives in fascinating ways. In a sense, her readings can be seen as crucial acts of forgery detection in themselves—not with the purpose of unveiling deceptive objects or currency—but of illuminating subtle acts of financial deception to demonstrate their surprising narrative power. This is the case with her discussion of Richard Bradshaw’s forgeries in Gaskell’s Ruth, which, while secondary to the plot at first glance, force us “to reconsider fallenness as not merely a moral or a sanitary problem, but an economic circumstance as well” (58). Malton’s identification of forgery in Collins’s The Moonstone also adds a new perspective to this narrative. While most readers of the novel remember Godfrey Ablewhite as a thief, Malton rightly argues that his status as forger is a vital aspect of his criminal identity. Coupled with his (fortuitous) reliance on opium to steal the titular diamond, his acts of monetary forgery uncomfortably reflect the British empire’s shady international dealings in the context of the Opium Wars. Equally effective is Malton’s reading of the radical redefinition of identity in Jekyll and Hyde, a narrative in which the “forging of one’s own checks becomes a possibility” (94; italics in original). She continues, “Hyde thus comes into being at Jekyll’s moral, physical, and, also, economic expense…. His very embodiment is envisioned as an entrance into the credit economy: only when he is given what appears a legitimate economic identity does Hyde become possessed of cultural and, indeed, narrative value” (98, 99). This point becomes all the more persuasive when coupled with her argument about the link between debt and identity in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).
There are instances in which the book substitutes its concern with detail for schematic readings of texts. Malton’s cursory discussion of Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) in the second chapter, for instance, generates conclusions about the novel’s engagement with bankruptcy and legitimacy that are not as rigorously supported as her subsequent readings of Ruth. This is one of the parts of her study that left me wondering about the overall brevity the volume, whereas at other moments (as in her reading of The Moonstone) I was surprised at how much depth Malton achieved in a relatively limited space. The conclusion also seemed truncated: this one gave the impression (accurate or not) that it had once been part of a longer work that was excised to serve a different purpose. This impression was frustrating given the promise of many of the ideas brought up such as the observations about the primacy of “sham culture” (145) in Gissing’s fin-de-siècle novels, and the problem of self-fabrication in Henry James and James Joyce.
These undeveloped moments of Malton’s book are more distracting than they might otherwise be given the depth of the rest of her study, which elegantly conveys the importance of details in narratives of forgery and in the critical analyses that make them come alive. The multiple instances in which Malton’s study thoroughly grounds its historical and cultural contextualizations with provocative close readings make Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture an important addition to the expanding body of scholarly works on Victorian economies.
Aviva Briefel is Associate Professor of English at Bowdoin College. She is the author of The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century (2006), co-editor of Horror after 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror (forthcoming), and is currently writing a book titled Borrowed Hands: Manual Readings of Race at the Fin de Siècle.