Nancy Henry and Cannon Schmitt, eds. Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009. vii+250 pp. $24.95 (p)
Rev. by Tammy Whitlock
This marriage between “serious” economic history and cultural studies supports the editors’ lofty assertions of their intent to “define a field” (2). The majority of essays in this strong collection manage to bridge the gap between post-modern studies of Victorian finance and its representations in Victorian culture, and more traditional social and economic history with (dare I say it?) its roots in Marxist scholarship (2).
The ten scholars represented in Victorian Investments have managed to reinvigorate the trenchant debates about the cultural and social significance of the great economic shifts of the nineteenth century. The essays originated as a 2002 special issue of Victorian Studies that was also co-edited by Anjali Arondekar. Inspired in part by our own turn-of-the century experiences with financial bubbles and their subsequent bursting—such as those in the dot.com and real estate markets— this timely collection enhances our understanding of the role that a rising culture of investment played in the lives of Victorians and how it continues to reverberate in our own time. The essays highlight the importance of an increasingly global marketplace, the debates over legal controls in the marketplace (especially limited liability), and the development and impact of financial journalism.
Part 2, “Cultures of Investment,” provides some of the most stimulating new research and arguments regarding our understanding of Victorian culture. Mary Poovey examines how the growing market culture was dependent on both secrecy and disclosure for its continued success. In a daring effort to combine the Derridean model of the supplement with less “ahistorical” (57) analyses, Poovey demonstrates how the required tension between opacity and transparency allowed Victorian capitalism to function. In doing so Poovey integrates the history of “speculation” and gambling with investment and its functions in the Victorian novel—especially Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Logically following Poovey’s work is Timothy Alborn’s impressively researched essay on the growing role of “spectacular” bonus declarations in the history of insurance. The periodic bonus announcements of respective insurance companies were their public measure of success until bonuses ended with the more accurate premiums of the twentieth century. Even as occasional bonuses were accepted by the staid business of insurance, debates raged over the morality and democratic potential of limited liability. Donna Loftus scrutinizes the debates surrounding the Limited Liability Act of 1855 and the Joint Stock Companies Act of 1856 to bring radical politics back into what is seen historically as a “Liberal” middle-class issue. She notes a clear shift between the earlier (1854) debates characterized by their emergence in 1840s concerns over the social organization of capital and the debates as they ended in 1856, which centered on the “legal position of shareholders”(97). David Itzkowitz’s essay also concerns itself with the moral implications of economic change and how debates over “speculation” and the immorality of gambling served to legitimate and domesticate forms of investment pre-Victorians perceived as wicked speculation into the legitimate investments of the late 1800s, with only certain narrowly defined investments remaining outside the pale. With terms like “speculation” and “gambling” having a more emotional than technical definition, George Robb’s essay on the fears and realities of women in the Anglo-American financial world continues the theme of the razor-thin boundary between acceptable and immoral, rational and “irrational” investment. Robb explains how the exclusionary rhetoric of the victimization of women by the evils of the marketplace was utilized by late century feminists to argue for women’s participation in a “social housekeeping” argument for gender equity in the financial world.
Part 3, “Fictions of Investment,” further elaborates on the connections between representation, finance, and English culture. Although she opens with a modern commercial and visual reference to market value, Audrey Jaffe mainly uses the character of Ferdinand Lopez in Trollope’s The Prime Minister to examine the complexities of Victorian “speculation.” Jaffe finds those complexities originating in the underlying realization that “speculation is capitalism” (157 n. 2). If the attitude toward money, such as in Trollope’s work, is more revealing than the ways in which money is invested, then the representation of financially motivated suicides (such as Lopez’s) in Victorian fiction illuminates cultural critiques of the new financial world. Nancy Henry looks at authors’ depictions of such suicides ranging from Dickens to Gissing and Wharton. The “morality tale” of the greedy speculator punished by loss and suicide was a staple of Victorian realist fiction that continues to reappear in the literature of the marketplace Cannon Schmitt’s contribution exploring the role of rumor and market via Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo completes the collection. Schmitt agrees with Conrad’s thesis that “informal imperialism” (See Cain & Hopkins) was just as destructive as direct imperialism and even more dependent on a “market of information” which rests as much on rumor as reality.
The essays that frame this thoughtful collection are written by Ian Baucom and Martin Daunton. Baucom’s essay on the eighteenth century episode of the Zong illustrates how finance capitalism rested on the agreement of parties on the insured value of “goods.” In other words, value was calculated in terms of loss. Daunton’s afterword also explores the themes of liability and loss ranging from the cost of a sealskin coat to the loss of limb and life in workman’s compensation cases. Daunton’s essay alone is worth the very reasonable cost of this volume for its commentaries on the previous authors and the way it deftly challenges older paradigms of the gentrification of industrial wealth. Any scholar who can call upon Gladstone, Lloyd George, and John Maynard Keynes while invoking philosophers ranging from Hobbes to Malthus deserves his credit. Overall, this text with its rich variety of scholarship cannot be contained in the paucity of words that limit this review. It is vital reading for those interested in cultural studies, economic history, theories of value and representation, and the influence of empire and the growth of capitalism.
Tammy C. Whitlock teaches courses in British, European and Legal history at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. Her publication Crime, Gender, and Consumer Culture in Nineteenth Century England (Ashgate, Spring 2005) examines the history of fraud and shoplifting in the context of the phenomenal growth of the Victorian economy.