The relationship between economy and culture has long represented a subject of interest for scholars of Victorian Britain, one of the world's first capitalist societies. Financial activities—investment, speculation, loans, and debt management—in particular have received careful attention in recent works by Margot Finn and Mary Poovey, as well as in a special issue of this journal (45.1). Ranald C. Michie further contributes to this scholarship in his study of the perception of the City of London in the culture of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Not only does he seek to chart the City's fluctuating reputation between the British victory at Waterloo and the beginning of World War I, however, but also to explore the relationship between cultural and economic change more generally.
Michie argues that in the nineteenth century the City of London was a place defined by professions and activities (above all financial speculation) rather than architecture and spatial organization. When the physical space of the City was referenced at all, it was notable only for its nondescript or labyrinthine character, in which the Stock Exchange, for example, was easily overlooked as just another "ugly modern house" (144). As a result, the British public's ideas about the City were largely informed by isolated, well-publicized moments, most often associated with irrational or disastrous financial speculation, such as during the "Railway Mania" of the 1840s, the Liberator Building Society collapse in 1892, and the subsequent trial of its director in 1895.
Before the 1870s, Michie contends, the City's reputation tended to be negative, largely because it was unable to shed the unseemly associations Britons made between gambling and investment during the early decades of the century. In the 1870s and 1880s, however, a period of "grudging acceptance bordering on admiration" ensued as Britons came to acknowledge the centrality of the City to their nation's wealth and prosperity. This trend was "abruptly reversed" in the 1890s, undermined by increased overseas investment (especially by a few prominent Jewish bankers) and the erratic speculation that accompanied the rise and fall of colonial gold mining operations (232). After the 1890s, the City's reputation never recovered, remaining a proxy for British anticapitalism and anti-Semitism into the twentieth century. Thus, despite the fact that the City played an ever-greater role in the prosperity of the nation, Britain never developed a "pro-City culture" (234). Instead, it was unable to jettison the "deep-rooted prejudices" against it, while "actual events . . . were much less important" in constructing its national reputation (111). As a result, Michie concludes, "there was neither a consistent nor a direct relationship between economy and culture" during the century. Britons may have been unable to embrace the City because of long-standing [End Page 136] prejudices against "money, speculation, Jews and foreigners" but this negative opinion was no "impediment to its success" (234).
Michie bases his history on "a close reading of British fiction written between 1800 and 1914" (263). He has amassed and analyzed an impressive body of literature—both in terms of volume and variety—and expresses the hope that he has "identified every major novelist and their works that have covered the subject of the City of London and high finance" (263). It must be added that in doing so he has also unearthed a mass of overlooked and underexplored novels. To offer one choice example: Guy Thorne and Leo Custance's Sharks (1904), whose plot hinges around a group of City businessmen who form a bogus firm ("The Lost Continent Recovery Company") dedicated to raising the sunken island of Atlantis, and who make a killing by preying on a British public enthralled by the "idea of extending the British empire" while simultaneously making a fortune in the process (171). Michie's recovery of these overlooked novels, not to mention the five-page list of such works found at the beginning of his works cited, is of no small value on its own.