Recountings: On Dickens's Financial Memory

Article excerpt

"The great house is, therefore, a huge circulating library." Charles Dickens on the Bank of England (1850)

"Without memory, there is no debt" Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)

In a 2006 TLS review article on the architectural history of the Bank of England, Gillian Darley thus describes the vast expansion of the Bank's operations in the early-nineteenth century: "By 1815, more than a thousand were working on the Bank site, a factory floor in which time-keeping, discipline and mechanization ordered what may have been the largest white-collar work force in the world" (13). This consummate display of order, precision, and systemization contributed to the Bank's increasing figuration as an imposing symbol of the nation and authority--an edifice responsible for the good governance of, as Darley says, with the language of exemplarity that so frequently accompanies its description, "the largest white-collar work force in the world." The Bank, and the larger system it inhabited, was evidently an increasing force to be reckoned with.

In recent years, a growing body of critical work has carried out a good deal of this reckoning process, encouraging us to consider the degree to which the institutionalization of the banking system informed the cultural experience--and cultural production--of nineteenth-century Britain. (1) Such thinking of course extends well beyond the bounds of both that period and those of academic enquiry. I point, for instance, to a recent marketing campaign by ING direct, which compels us to think in similar terms about the bank's construction in our own age. In ING'S 2012 "Old Ways" television commercial, a central feature of its new "Forward Banking" campaign, the viewer enters a looming, grey cavernous space, a bank, which is emptied of employees and customers and, it seems, of its cultural significance as well. (2) In this fascinating piece of revisionism, the bank's conventional iconography--the deposit slip; the pen with the chain attached; the limited banking hours, marked on an archaic sign; the water cooler, stale coffee, and free donuts; the velvet ropes; and, above all, the banker's green lamp--are, literally, obliterated, exploding one by one before our eyes. Endless reams of paper reminiscent of Dickens's Circumlocution Office rain down across this financial sepulchre and are replaced, as we move to the next shot and the comfortable, easy-chair bank of today, by the relaxed coffee-sipping individual, happily reviewing his financials on his smooth functioning iPad at his local "ING direct Cafe."

In rendering such images and objects of the banking realm so viscerally obsolescent, ING taps into a critical aspect of shared cultural memory: this commercial urgently reminds us of the degree to which banking, as a physical experience, had once been bound up with individual and daily life, and perhaps, more importantly, it reminds us of just how much of it we have forgotten. And as if the bank's connection to our collective memory were not plain enough from the images on screen, the nostalgic tones of Edith Piaff are called in to overstate the case: "It's all paid for, wiped out, and forgotten," she sings in her mournfully defiant "Je Ne Regrette Rien."

What ING is doing here is attempting to revise, but not altogether alter, our conception of banking as intensely personal, tactile, and experiential. Such a construction of the bank can likewise be found, I would contend, in nineteenth-century British culture. Throughout the century, the period's fiction charts an increasing--if tentative--acceptance of the bank's role as both a financial and interpersonal mediator, one often responsible for the authentication of individual identity and a guarantor of social legitimacy. In George Eliot's Middlemarch (1874), for example, the narrator identifies the relocation of saved money from the "Old stocking" at home to "the savings-bank" in town as one of a range of changes coming to "Old provincial society" (88). …