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Tamara S. Wagner, Financial Speculation in Victorian Fiction: Plotting Money and the Novel Genre, 1815–1901

Nathalie Vanfasse
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Wagner, Tamara S., Financial Speculation in Victorian Fiction: Plotting Money and the Novel Genre, 1815–1901, Columbus, Ohio University Press, 2010, 232 p.

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1This excellent study analyses the Victorian novel’s engagement with finance capitalism. It fits into a wave of recent critical studies devoted to literature and economics (Francis O’ Gorman, Catherine Gallagher) and it mirrors a renewal of interest in the way literature interacts with nineteenth-century economic ideologies and practices. Tamara S. Wagner focuses on the impact of market forces on literature and shows that novels do not just mirror contemporary financial crises but contribute to developing a discourse around them. Her book is devoted to the plotting of financial speculation, i.e. to the turning of financial stories into fictional narratives. It shows that Victorian literature contributed to representing and understanding a rapidly evolving economy and that it was part and parcel of an effort to create a stable and reliable financial system. Wagner examines how new instruments of financial credit were worked into fiction and how literature absorbed and processed current economic theories and finance journalism. Fictional financial narratives rendered the economic system more familiar to readers and helped them understand its mechanisms. Novels established distinctions and connections between investment, speculation and gambling, as well as between trustworthy investors and speculators—thereby revealing that wild speculation could sometimes paradoxically be the condition of successful investment schemes. Financial narratives thus stressed how precarious the boundaries between professional, trustworthy and ruthless, fraudulent schemes could be.

2This book emphasises the Victorian need to retell financial crises and account for them. The plotting of financial speculation mirrors a Victorian fascination with such episodes, as well as an attempt to build cautionary tales aimed at preventing them from happening again, and an endeavour to work out their mechanisms, the better to outdo them. Narratives about speculative ventures were also a way of expressing anxieties about such schemes, as well as a way of containing the threat they represented through convenient closure achieved thanks to the construction and elimination of stock-market villains. Financial plots in Victorian fiction voiced concerns about instability and rapid economic change. Tamara Wagner shows that the advent of modern finance and capitalism added to increased social and geographical mobility engendered emotional instability. The rise of a credit economy, the development of disembodied capital as opposed to landed wealth, stock-market fluctuations and crashes produced a sense of volatility as well as of personal vulnerability and epistemological uncertainty. Ideas of moral probity, stable identity and credit were seriously questioned. In this new context in which financial crises dovetailed with personal crises, traditional narrative structures took on new resonances. The traditional villain became a stock-market villain and speculation provided a new way of understanding marriage and inheritance plots.

3Tamara Wagner studies the building of the character of the speculator in silver fork novels and shows that he grows increasingly complex in the course of the Victorian period. She then examines financial speculation in the light of sensation fiction before focusing more specifically on depictions of financial speculation abroad as well as on foreign speculators in Britain. She goes on to explore speculation in British suburbia and the domestication of financial speculation by female novelists. In short, this book really provides fascinating new insights into the links between financial speculation and Victorian novels and in doing so it enables readers to rediscover well-known novels or plays like Little Dorrit, The Way We Live Now or An Ideal Husband, while also discovering many lesser-known works by authors like Catherine Gore, Charlotte Riddell or Ellen Wood, among many others.

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Nathalie Vanfasse, « Tamara S. Wagner, Financial Speculation in Victorian Fiction: Plotting Money and the Novel Genre, 1815–1901 »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 77 Printemps | 2013, mis en ligne le 03 décembre 2013, consulté le 06 juin 2020. URL :

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Nathalie Vanfasse

Université de Provence

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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