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“Rapid changes in Victorian financial markets and investment practices reflected and influenced broader changes,” write Nancy Henry and Cannon Schmitt in the introduction to their edited collection Victorian Investments, which grew out of the 2002 special issue on this topic in Victorian Studies (12). Democracy, women, empire, affect, race, morality, and class: the list of issues affected by Victorian finance appears inexhaustible, and the essays in the volume do justice to its breadth. When the editors note that the “watchword in this volume in its entirety is transformation,” they alert their readers to one of the most compelling aspects of the collection (12). The nine essays in Victorian Investments, two of which are by the editors, dwell on emerging investment cultures that changed Victorian social relations, literary forms, and epistemological perspectives. Lively analyses uncover the dynamism of Victorian finance cultures. The emphasis on transformation ensures a deeply historicist approach as it distinguishes and interconnects distinct moments in time.
The editors and the contributors explore developments in finance cultures which constituted breaks with the status quo. For example, Ian Baucom’s essay, which, offering a prehistory of Victorian finance, constitutes Part I of the collection, attends to the critical moment in the mid eighteenth century when slaves came to be perceived as “‘empty bearers’ of an abstract, theoretical, but entirely real quantum of value” (31). Part II, comprised of five essays on cultures of investment, examines new institutions and narratives of finance in the Victorian period. Mary Poovey turns to the 1840s to trace the appearance of financial journalism, which provided the middle classes with investment tips; Timothy Alborn approaches the rise of life insurance bonuses in the early nineteenth century as a foundational moment in fund management; Donna Loftus examines political debates surrounding the 1855 Limited Liability Acts, which altered laws of commercial responsibility such that members of the working class could hypothetically become investors. As the final two essays in Part II suggest, there was no shortage of novelty in the world of finance in later decades of the nineteenth century. David Itzkowitz explores the birth of new industries in the 1870s that blurred a line between investment and gambling which had been laboriously drawn in the preceding decades. George Robb’s essay reveals that “the faceless thousands” whose investments financed joint-stock companies included women and that banks in the second half of the century sought to distinguish themselves by building “special facilities for ‘ladies’” (121, 123). While the essays recognize the large-scale injustices that these historical developments enforced, the emphasis is on the unique circumstances of each event. These subtle perspectives reveal the complex webs in which capitalism, liberalism, and ideologies of gender and race intersect and challenge one another in unpredictable ways.
The volume’s emphasis on transformation persists in Part III, devoted to what the editors call fictions of investment. Zooming in on the Victorian novel, this final section focuses especially on the strategies and forms involved in the representation of investment. The essay by Audrey Jaffe on Trollope’s fiction shows that the stock market necessitated new ways of relating affect to value. Henry’s essay, which reads the common trope of the financier’s suicide as a critique of emergent business cultures, partly replicates Jaffe’s emphasis on Trollope, but also features analysis of George Gissing’s and Edith Wharton’s novels. Schmitt’s essay, the final in the collection, offers a provocative reading of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. The “place of speech, misinformation, and rumor” in this novel, argues Schmitt, mimics the operation of the stock market and forges a new narrative style in which what is said about a thing matters more than the thing itself (194).
The editors have put together a remarkably coherent volume that interweaves several critical issues. In the introduction, Henry and Schmitt single out foci including the working classes and women in investment; narrative and linguistic forms in the finance economy; and links between investment, speculation, and gambling. Two interconnected threads bind the essays together: democracy in the market and the spread of information. To be sure, the classical liberal axiom that capitalism facilitated the development of democracy is familiar enough; the collection, informed by the methodologies of cultural studies, approaches that axiom critically. The range of investors in the Victorian period widened to include more women and working-class men than before. If the world of finance became more democratic in this limited sense, the increasing diversity of investors produced new forms of competition and control in the market. Investment was a disciplinary process, teaching prudence to the masses as it simultaneously offered spectacle and amusement (Alborn, Itzkowitz). Women were marginalized in the stock market, to which they were drawn in part due to their limited control over property (Robb); the market did not unify society even when laborers became capitalists by investing (Loftus). The “formerly genteel literary field” reacted to the “perceived philistinism of business” by representing financiers in melodramatic, Gothic, and sensational modes (Henry 166). The widening base of investors in the market corresponded to changes in the transmission and availability of information. Financial journalism relied on simultaneous disclosure and secrecy (Poovey); novels questioned whether value could be gauged by observing and interpreting character (Jaffe); information, appearing both “indispensable and unreliable,” structured new narrative techniques (Schmitt 196).
Providing wide-ranging but focused explorations of Victorian investments, Henry and Schmitt’s collection makes a rich contribution to the body of interdisciplinary work that integrates economics into cultural inquiry. In 1999, Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen outlined the characteristics of that body of work in The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics. As their title suggests, cultural approaches to economics in the past decades have frequently foregrounded the relation between economic writing and literature. Studies such as James Thompson’s Models of Value (1996) and Catherine Gallagher’s The Body Economic (2006), for example, draw attention the ways in which fiction and political economy were mutually constitutive in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Victorian Investments casts a wider net in that it explores various kinds of texts addressing economic developments—advertisements, corporate records, financial news—not just political economy. Further, the collection relates economic developments to the law, sports, gambling, reform, and journalism as well as to literature, thus offering a panoramic view of Victorian culture and a multifaceted interdisciplinary approach. Commenting on methodology, the editors write in the introduction that they “recognize the emergence of an approach to the Victorian economy at once more wide-ranging and more fine-grained than those versions of Marxist critique focused on industrialism have fostered. In this regard and others Victorian Investments constitutes a break” (2). This formulation may be confusing, as it approaches the Marxist tradition only through the lens of industrial production. Henry and Schmitt’s collection enriches studies of economic culture by going beyond Marxist criticism, but surely this is not because Marxism is ill-equipped to address liquid wealth or monetary assets. The editors provide a more compelling account of their break with Marxist criticism when they note, “our contributors concentrate less on a critique of Victorian capitalism per se than on overlooked dimensions of the culture of investment” (2).
Nuanced and multifaceted as Victorian Investments is, it does not define finance capitalism or offer an account of it as a system with an overarching grammar. The essays individually explore significant developments such as the rise of limited liability and the fall of insurance bonuses, but do not address whether there was a sweeping shift in the management of liquid resources in the Victorian period. Does finance capitalism differ from agrarian or mercantile capitalism? Did the circulation of monetary assets stand in tension with industrial production in the late Victorian period? Such questions appear to lie outside the scope of this volume. Perhaps an effort to articulate an overarching grammar of finance would run the risk of seeing every cultural phenomenon as the articulation of an underlying economic logic. At the same time, a thorough definition of finance capitalism or a discussion of its distinct attributes would have strengthened those links between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries which the contributors frequently evoke.
Attentive to complexities and contradictions, Victorian Investments demonstrates links between finance and seemingly unrelated aspects of nineteenth-century British society, and in doing so reveals under-explored connections between Britain, the United States, and South America which were forged by financial markets. The collection offers its readers the pleasures and insights of thorough interdisciplinary inquiry as it solidifies the place of economics in Victorian studies.
Ayşe Çelikkol is assistant professor at Bilkent University, Turkey, where she teaches in the departments of English Literature and American Culture and Literature. She has published articles on British and American fiction and poetry, and her forthcoming book explores the narration of global commerce in nineteenth-century British literature. Currently, she teaches courses on contemporary cultures of global capitalism as well as literary history.