The Afterlife of Property: Domestic Security and the Victorian Novel

By Jeff Nunokawa | Go to book overview

Afterword

Truly it was impossible to dissociate her presence from all those wretched hankerings after money and gentility that had disturbed my boyhood—from all those ill-regulated aspirations that had first made me ashamed of home … from all those visions that had raised her face in the glowing fire, struck it out of the iron on the anvil, extracted it from the darkness of night to look in at the wooden window of the forge and flit away.

(Charles Dickens, Great Expectations)

AGAIN AND AGAIN, the story is the same: nothing gold can stay. Like the inconstant woman in whom it is typically engrossed, the figure who rises from “the glowing fire” or “from the darkness of night,” only to disappear again, the luminous shapes of capital advertised in and beyond the Victorian novel disappoint expectations of endurance, great and small. 1 Slipping through the fingers of even the tightest grip, capital is more like a volatile gas than a solid property: As often as night follows day, or what is repressed returns, the miser's hoard is taken from him; the gains of merchant and adventurers go the way they came; the palace of affluence melts into air.

And like the fateful desire for a cruel mistress where it often convenes, the “wretched hankering after money,” and the silver-plated “gentility” that money buys, is an “ill-regulated aspiration” that makes its victim ashamed of home and home ashamed of him. For if the forms of capital audited by the Victorian novel baffle the hope for the stability entrusted in a woman called home, they also encourage and accommodate passions that have no place there. In the ambiguous undulations of currency and accounting books, in the vivid shapes vended by streetwalker and marriage broker, in the capital of bodies and the bodies of capital, are figures that blast the protocols of propriety that the Victorian novel teaches as the virtue of home, just as surely as they annul the dream of stable estate that it helped to place among home's comforts.

Such hazards couldn't be farther removed from a promise of capital commonly entertained in the century before the Victorian novel. For in the love of money, Albert O. Hirschman declares in his digest of “arguments for capitalism before its triumph,” “men were expected or as

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