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Francis O’Gorman, ed. Victorian Literature and Finance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0199281923. Price: US$99

  • Patrick Brantlinger

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  • Patrick Brantlinger
    Indiana University

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Victorian Literature and Finance is an outstanding addition to “the new economic criticism,” complementing other recent studies such as Regenia Gagnier’s TheInsatiability of Human Wants, Catherine Gallagher’s The Body Economic, and Mary Poovey’s Genres of the Credit Economy. O’Gorman notes that much of this work moves away from an older Marxist criticism with its emphases on labor, production, and, often enough, the industrial novels of the 1840s and 50s, to an interest in consumption, finance, and, besides novelistic realism, poetry, drama, and aestheticism. As Nancy Henry points out, however, this does not make “the new economic criticism” pro- as opposed to anti-capitalist: “Rather, much of this new work is looking to uncover neglected aspects of Victorian culture” (114).

After O’Gorman’s introduction, Nicholas Shrimpton’s wide-ranging essay traces the evolving meanings of money in the nineteenth century. Through the 1840s, bankruptcies made money seem highly unstable and also made debt a frequent theme among novelists. “By the 1870s, with other countries belatedly following Britain’s example in shifting from bimetallism to the gold standard, it was possible to feel less anxious about money” (25). Shrimpton notes how often and exactly Victorian novelists balanced their books with precise accounts of characters’ incomes and debts. He also stresses how often the novelists criticize Mammonism, while rewarding their virtuous characters with good incomes and inheritances. Money is bad if you want it too much; money is good if you acquire it either innocently or through hard work. He cites Douglas Jerrold’s 1848-49 fantasy, A Man Made of Money, in which the protagonist is a modern Midas who, instead of turning everything into gold, turns himself into paper money.

Next, Gordon Bigelow analyzes the economics of Isaac Butt and Thomas De Quincey as adumbrating marginal utility and neoliberal “free” marketism. Yet Butt and De Quincey were attempting conservative, “romantic” revisions of Ricardo and early liberal economics. Irishman Butt’s 1833 Chapters of College Romance and De Quincey’s literary writings provide a basis for Bigelow’s claim that they both practiced “gothic economics,” because they both saw value based not on labor or on any material foundation, but on the “occult” desires of the consumer. Perhaps the main surprise isn’t that Butt and De Quincey practiced “gothic economics,” but that economists from W. S. Jevons through Milton Friedman have claimed that the consumer is an entirely rational actor in the marketplace, not some ghostly emanation of an “occult” interiority.

The next two essays, Catherine Seville’s on Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Alison Chapman’s on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, show these authors expressing uneasiness in their dealings with copyright, publishers, popularity, and money. Both essays carefully survey the histories of the authors confronting their vexed relations with making an income from writing, revealing some of the rifts between monetary and literary value. “My husband and I are averse generally to the periodical vehicle of publication,” wrote Barrett Browning in 1861 (74), but they did it anyway. “Such tensions should not be dismissed as mere inconsistency, snobbishness, or hypocrisy,” Seville declares, but they “reveal the ambivalent relationship between author and market” (72)

Jane Moody’s examination of “the drama of capital” on the Victorian stage demonstrates how “depictions of fraudulent joint-stock companies, deceitful promoters, and collapsing banks cleverly exploited the uncertain economy of the theatre’s own mimetic conditions” (91). Of the many plays that dealt with financial matters, Moody concentrates on George Henry Lewes’s The Game of Speculation (1851), Tom Taylor’s Still Waters Run Deep (1855), Anthony Hope Hawkins’s The Price of Empire (1896), W. S. Gilbert’s Utopia, Ltd. (1893), and Dion Boucicault’s The Poor of New York (1857). “Whereas stock market crashes taught investors painfully real lessons about the folly of investing in ‘ludicrous’ schemes,” Moody writes, “the theatre identified the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate risk as a rich arena for ludic exploration” (97). While the novel has been viewed as “the definitive genre of capital,” the theater, as a cultural form based on illusion and spectacle, “acquired a special kind of explanatory power in the age of high capital” (92).

In her analysis of Victorian women as investors in both “fact and fiction,” Nancy Henry questions “the ideology of separate spheres,” public for men and private for women. From the 1700s forward, women made up substantial minorities among investors in the Bank of England, the East India Company, and other enterprises. While they could not vote for Parliament, they did have votes in meetings of investors. Among women novelists, “Catherine Gore, Margaret Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontës, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and George Eliot incorporated bank failures and bankruptcies into their plots, and many of them were as committed financially and emotionally to the stock market as their male counterparts” (121). Charlotte Riddell was another novelist who claimed an insider’s knowledge of “the City” and high finance (127).

Analyzing Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Tara McGann argues that its “commitment to comprehend the actual...extends to social phenomena that earlier novels had taken to be set in meaning” (136). Rather than simply condemning Melmotte as a financial fraud and a Jewish interloper, Trollope is also attempting “to account for the business cycle theory emerging during the late 1860s and 1870s, which looked to impersonal factors such as fluctuating credit, liquidity crises, and time to understand what produced sharp downturns in the money market, of the sort that crush Melmotte” (136). In other words, Melmotte is as much victim of impersonal economic forces as he is a villain. But despite Trollope’s striving to be realistic rather than morally condemnatory, the novel both “undermines” the conventions of earlier novels about high finance such as Dickens’s Little Dorrit “while still partly adhering to them” (156).

O’Gorman’s fine essay examines H. Rider Haggard’s anxieties about making money through his adventure romances and about achieving cultural “longevity.” Enigmatic texts (treasure map, the “sherd of Amanartas,” Mr. Meeson’s will) within Haggard’s romances and his interest in reincarnation suggest the desire both for literary recognition and permanence and for securing fortune or money that position “romance” itself as an adventurous genre in some sense aligned with financial “speculation.” O’Gorman notes that literary romance and financial speculation come together most explicitly in Haggard’s The Yellow God with its “duplicitous scheme called ‘Sahara Limited’” (168). The story privileges making a fortune through risky African exploration rather than through speculation. “Romance” approves the sort of risk-taking associated with “adventure”; it disapproves of the sort associated with the stock market. Haggard’s adventure tales “occupy a strikingly multiple position in accounts of the relationship between high capitalism and literature” in the late 1800s (172).

In the concluding essay, Josephine Guy examines the interplay between “cultural” and “financial capital” as these affected “literary value” in the fin de siècle. Writers such as Oscar Wilde strove simultaneously to make a living by selling their wares and criticized vulgar economic motives as beneath high art. Stressing either art-for-art’s-sake or the business side of literature can obviously produce very different readings and evaluations of any author. Understanding Wilde, William Morris, or other writers and artists in relation to “consumerism,” as Regenia Gagnier does in her study of Wilde (Idylls of the Marketplace), at least brings the two sides together. Although Guy does not discuss Morris, he also found himself dependent on the very capitalist marketplace that he considered inimical to genuine art. In any event, Guy’s essay is a fitting way to end an outstanding anthology about the nineteenth-century relations between literature and economics.