Victorian Literature and Finance

Victorian Literature and Finance

Victorian Literature and Finance

Victorian Literature and Finance


Victorian Britain offered to the globe an economic structure of unique complexity. The trading nation, at the heart of a great empire, developed the practices of advanced capitalism - currency, banking, investment, money markets, business practices and theory, intellectual property legislation - from which the financial systems of the contemporary world emerged. Cultural forms in Victorian Britain transacted with high capitalism in a variety of ways but literary critics interested in economics have traditionally been preoccupied either with writers' hostility to industrial capitalism in terms of its shaping of class, or with the development of consumerism. Victorian Literature and Finance is the first extended study to take seriously the relationships between literary forms and those more complex discourses of Victorian high finance. These essays move beyond the examination of literature that was merely impatient with the perceived consequences of capitalism to analyze creative relationships between culture and economic structures. Considering such topics as the nature of currency, women and the culture of investment, the profits of a modern media age, the dramatization of risk on the Victorian stage, the practice of realism in relation to business theory, the culture of speculation at the end of the century, and arguments about the uncomfortable relationship between literary and financial capital, Victorian Literature and Finance sets new terms for understanding and theorizing the relationship between high finance and literary writing.


Francis O'Gorman

Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank in 1995, was captured after fleeing Singapore and held temporarily in Höchst Prison, Germany. Later to be returned to Singapore, he was eventually sentenced to six and a half years in jail. While incarcerated in Höchst, Leeson searched the prison library for a book. There was scarcely anything except a damaged copy of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891). 'Back in my cell', Leeson wrote in his 1996 autobiography,

I was engrossed in the wretched tragedy of Tess, whose continual suffering as a milk-maid
and potato-picker seemed roughly equivalent to mine as a futures trader. I read it without
pause, well into Saturday night. But just after she had murdered the baddie and started
to escape with her lover, with the police closing in on them in Stonehenge, the book
finished because the last four pages were torn out. I lay there in shock: did she get away
with it? Did she get caught? Was she executed for murder, or tried for a crime of passion?
How much time did she serve?

The novel speaks uncannily to his own situation: about pain and anxiety, calamity and peripeteia. Hardy's text plays out a drama in which Leeson seems a missing character. Tess, pursued by the constabulary for murder, stands in for the trader, captured by police in fleeing from a massive financial fraud. The lost pages clinch the connection: what will be the outcome of Leeson's crime? How much time will he serve? The futures trader, gambling for a living on how financial markets will behave next, finds himself speculating frustratedly on what will happen next in a nineteenth-century novel. Imagining the future holds him and the broken text together.

It is an unexpected connection between a Victorian novel and the contemporary world of high finance. Victorian Literature and Finance is about the connections between Victorian literature and the Victorian world of finance—its instruments, practices, theories, laws. But Nick Leeson's curiosity is a hint

Nick Leeson with Edward Whitley, Rogue Trader (London: Little, Brown, 1996), 327

It is not possible to be absolute about these things but in matters of Victorian pronunciation
finance was usual. Dr Johnson, as OED notes, stressed the first syllable and this pronunciation is . . .

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