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Review of Francis O’Gorman (ed.), Victorian Literature and Finance

2011 June 21
by rmcwilliam

Victorian Literature and Finance, edited by Francis O’Gorman, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, xii + 201 pp., £56 (hardback), ISBN 978 0 19 928192 3

At the end of nearly every year from 1998 through 2006, a period encompassing the swelling and bursting of one speculative bubble and the inflation of another, the New York Times awarded its Augustus Melmotte Memorial Prizes for particularly memorable “financial flubs and feats” from the preceding twelve months. The “feats” tend toward the jaw-dropping. The brazen shenanigans of the corporate and individual cast of characters that has now come to be part of our more familiar narrative of financial malfeasance (Enron, AIG, Fannie Mae) are joined by other less renowned but still amazing examples: the fish-oil-and-meat-casing company that set out to remake itself as an Internet powerhouse, doubling its stock price for at least a while; the company whose initial public offering prospectus announced that with its history of losses and anticipated increased expenses it might never turn a profit—and whose candour was met with an immediate 150% rise in its stock price. Despite the recent economic upheavals, the Melmotte Awards did not make an appearance at the close of 2008, but never fear: Victorian literature remains a touchstone for journalists and observers seeking purchase on the crisis. The New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize-winning economist) Paul Krugman recently announced in his blog that events had spurred him to read Little Dorrit, touching off a lively debate in its comments section over whether Bernie Madoff, charged with defrauding investors in a giant Ponzi scheme, more closely resembled Trollope’s Melmotte or Dickens’s Merdle. One commenter demanded that economics graduate programs include a mandatory course on Dickens.
Stipulating that such a requirement is, to say the least, unlikely to be adopted, what would the syllabus for such a course look like? Victorian literature contains no shortage of frauds and panics, and literary critics have long maintained an interest in texts’ accounts of capitalism in crisis mode. But, as Jonathan Rose recently argued in a provocative essay in Victorian Studies, literary scholarship over recent years has seen the emergence of a new kind of criticism that does not—or not necessarily—follow the trajectory of seeing in Victorian literature a vehicle for the critique of capitalism that the outraged blog comments suggest. As Nancy Henry, one of the contributors to the stimulating and informative volume Victorian Literature and Finance, puts it, this new critical model is “devoted to understanding Victorian capitalism and the ways in which financial arrangements conditioned individual lives” (114). It is not pro-capitalist, as Rose suggested, but rather interested in achieving a more complete, textured, historical understanding of Victorian culture. In his useful editor’s introduction, Francis O’Gorman situates the work of this collection within this burgeoning field by noting its distinctness from earlier modes of analysis that engaged economic life, such as the Marxist critical tradition, with its focus on relations of production and class conflict, or the analysis of consumer culture. The volume’s “first intention,” he declares, “is to bring recovered financial histories into direct contact with literary texts from the nineteenth century; to examine relationships, in different ways and with different theoretical bases, between a complex economic environment and . . . the imaginative, aesthetic substance of literary writing itself” (7). Its argument is that Victorian literature featured “more imaginatively profitable transactions between literature and the domains of high finance, the complex world of advanced capitalism, than have customarily been allowed” (9).
Victorian Literature and Finance achieves these goals by bringing together a rich selection of essays that expand and complicate our sense of the diversity of Victorian experiences and representations of capitalism. The wide range of genres that the authors examine is the source of much of this richness. With nine essays on drama, poetry, romances, adventure tales, and political economic theory, as well as realist novels, literary critics and historians of the period will discover new materials to engage with and stimulating readings of familiar and less familiar works. In particular, Jane Moody’s wonderful essay, “The Drama of Capital: Risk, Belief, and Liability on the Victorian Stage,” and Nancy Henry’s excellent analysis of representations of women’s financial participation expand the literary terrain within which scholars will need to situate their investigations of the culture of Victorian finance.
The breadth of the collection also presents some potential liabilities, most of which the editor and contributors are able to avoid or to work past in intellectually profitable ways. The collection’s “overview” essays by Moody, Henry, and Nicholas Shrimpton, who presents an account of nineteenth-century financial debates and literary responses to them, are satisfying versions of that often difficult genre, balancing the claims of survey and argument. Moody makes a compelling case for the necessity of considering the way dramatic representations of differing genres “seemed both to celebrate and repudiate” the uncertainties of capital, playing on theatre’s concern with the relationship of appearances and the imaginary (92). Henry’s analysis of fictional (and factual) female investors demonstrates the ways that the gendered frames through which we too often still view the Victorian culture of investment need to be once again reconsidered. And in his article on money in Victorian literature, Shrimpton traces a narrative of secularisation (or perhaps, rather, de-moralisation) in the way texts of the period treat money. As O’Gorman points out in his introductory essay, this narrative is borne out in several other pieces, notably Tara McGann’s excellent reading of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now “in the wake of business cycle theory” (133) and his own essay on how H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novels work to teach their readers a tolerance for—and even a pleasure in—risk. O’Gorman’s introduction suggests other themes that link the variety within the collection: a preoccupation with different registers of value emerges in Catherine Seville’s essay on Edward Bulwer Lytton’s negotiations with his publishers and with the unfriendly regime of international intellectual property law; Alison Chapman’s article engages the personal and political context of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s uncharacteristic decision to publish poetry in an American periodical; and Josephine M. Guy’s closing essay, a meta-critical analysis of the relation between our understanding of the economic circumstances of a text’s production and our assessment of its literary value. And finally, as the editor notes, several essays reconsider the nineteenth-century imagination of economic personhood, including Henry’s, and Gordon Bigelow’s excellent reading of the writings—from “college romances” to political economy—of Isaac Butt and Thomas De Quincey, in which he traces the emergence early in the century of a subjective, psychologically complex model of economic man that we normally associate with the much later marginal utility theory of William Stanley Jevons.
The risk that I suggested might be inherent in the breadth of the collection’s topics is evident in the above overview of the subjects taken up in this collection: despite O’Gorman’s helpful efforts to pull together common themes, there may seem to be a certain conceptual incoherence in a notion of finance that includes everything from investment in joint-stock companies, to political economy and business cycle theory, to intellectual property law, to negotiations between authors and publishers, to individual decisions about where to place poems. O’Gorman’s introduction lists a number of matters characteristic of “high finance”—“the development of international banking and its systems of communication, currency, credit instruments, company law, insurance, intellectual property legislation, the stock market and financial trading, taxation, business cycle theories, the professionalization of accountancy, the national debt”—which readers might expect to encounter from a volume highlighting finance in its title. These would suggest a tight focus on “the more complex structures of advanced capitalism,” as O’Gorman puts it (4). Many of the topics of essays in this collection would not at first glance appear to slot easily into a list such as this.
However, the looser definition of finance ultimately results in some of the volume’s most suggestive insights. In particular, the biographical focus of several of the essays, especially Bigelow’s, Seville’s, Chapman’s, O’Gorman’s, and Guy’s, highlights the way that at the micro level money and finance are emotional, social, and political territory—economic decisions (and ideas) may simultaneously be political investments, identity investments, aesthetic shots-across-the-bow, and so forth. Chapman’s fascinating essay on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for instance, traces the way the poet’s political commitment to the Italian Risorgimento suffuses money earned and money invested or spent, and suggests how these transformations in the meaning of money and authorial entrepreneurship condition the poet’s negotiation of the international marketplaces and publics for her work. In Bigelow’s account, Isaac Butt’s generation of a concept of a “mystic” (48), interior, “emotional or spiritual principle at work within economic life” (40) emerges out of the author’s particular allegiances within the Irish Protestant ascendancy. It was an early manifestation of a consumer-driven theory of economic subjectivity and a counterpoint to a hyper-rational model of economic man. Even as they narrow the immediate scope of their investigation, these micro-level analyses open up the range of questions that one might fruitfully consider under the rubric of finance.
In a volume which offers so much, it’s unfortunate that the authors’ engaging writing is sometimes marred by sloppy copy-editing. The acknowledgments, for instance, attribute to Bonamy Dobrée (1794–1863) a strikingly, indeed supernaturally, long term as Governor of the Bank of England: “(1859–1961)” (vii). It may seem petty to grumble about this—but, after all, we do need to set a good example for the economics graduate students when they take their Dickens course.

See, for instance, Gretchen Morgenson, “A Fanfare for the Vanities of 1998,” New York Times, 27 Dec. 1998, 13 Jan. 2009 ; and Morgenson, “A Year Underachievers Everywhere Can Be Proud Of,” New York Times 31 Dec. 2000, 13 Jan. 2009 . See also Paul Krugman, “Madoff/Merdle,” weblog entry, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” New York Times on the Web, 19 Dec. 2008, 13 Jan. 2009 . See also Wonks Anonymous, weblog comment 19, “Madoff/Merdle,” Paul Krugman, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” 19 Dec. 2008, 13 Jan. 2009 .
See Jonathan Rose, “Was Capitalism Good for Victorian Literature?” Victorian Studies 46, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 489–501.

Aeron Hunt
University of New Mexico
aeron@unm.edu

Aeron Hunt is Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Mexico. Her articles have appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture and Nineteenth-Century Literature. She is working on a book manuscript tentatively entitled Personal Business: Character and Commerce in Victorian Literature and Culture.

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