Tamara S. Wagner's Financial Speculation in Victorian Fiction argues that financial plots are essential to the novel genre. Tales of speculation (as opposed to cautious, respectable investment) connect various subgenres of Victorian fiction that are not usually associated by critics. Wagner traces a genealogy of financial fiction from Jane Austen's novel fragment Sanditon (1817) to the silver-fork novels of the 1840s, the sensation novels of the 1860s, and a range of late-century realist novels. She helps us to recognize just how central were the indeterminacy and instability registered in fictions of speculation to all these forms of Victorian narrative.
These observations may seem to comprise a historical argument about how novelists responded to material changes in their world. But inevitably, the tropes, devices, stereotypes, and metaphors employed by novelists created literary conventions that were borrowed, recycled, and adapted—consciously or not—throughout the nineteenth century. These aspects of financial fiction, rather than actual developments in the history of finance capitalism, are Wagner's primary interests. As she explains it, "the new plots of speculation outline maps of some of the major themes of nineteenth-century literature. These maps lead across overlapping categories of literary culture, generating zones of intersection between subgenres in which financial plots operate as the intersecting points" (3).
If her language is at times hard to follow, one point is clear: she "wish[es] to direct new attention to considerations of form and literary influence." Citing various calls for a renewal of formalist approaches, Wagner sees a "pressing need to proceed beyond purely contextual studies" (7). The need is pressing because speculation plots did not merely represent historical events; they turned such events into themes, and therefore, she argues, should be understood apart from their real-world contexts.
Articulating this position without applying any particular theory, Wagner wrestles with her own metaphors:
While outlining a historical trajectory, the present study also seeks to stress that the changing representation of finance was not a simple chronological progression, but a complicated map of overlapping domains in which the divergent appropriations by diverse subgenres can be seen to intersect. These points of intersection, or areas of agreement, can best be imagined in a series of overlapping circles, in the form of Venn diagrams.(25)
Deemphasizing chronology—in other words, history or time—Wagner tries to make us "see" and "imagine" the map she has in mind. She stresses space: outlines, maps, domains, areas, and diagrams. Yet unlike Franco Moretti in Atlas of the European Novel (1998), she does not provide actual maps; nor is Moretti mentioned. Contextual material is only selectively introduced and some chapters leave "strict chronology behind" (27). This is a formalist study without any interest in aesthetic evaluation in the New Critical sense or much interest in history in the New Historicist sense. This leads [End Page 777] readers to ask the following question: have we proceeded beyond historical context or merely left it behind?
In order to appreciate what this book achieves, we need to look beyond the confusing spacial metaphors. Its value is in its resurrection of forgotten works that include financial plots. Some of these works are mentioned by John Reed in his essential Victorian Studies article, "A Friend to Mammon: Speculation in Victorian Literature" (1984), while Ranald Michie summarizes the plots of many City of London novels in Guilty Money (2009). But Wagner provides longer, mostly convincing readings of non-canonical as well as canonical works and productively juxtaposes familiar financial plots with works that have received less attention.
The first chapter, "Silver Fork Speculation and the Making of Financial Fiction," gives welcome attention to silver-fork novels. It shows how the works of Thomas Surr, especially The Magic of Wealth (1815), influenced novels such as Catherine Gore's The Banker's Wife (1843) and Catherine Sinclair's Sir Edward Graham; or, Railway Speculators (1849). Patterns in Gore's and Sinclair's plots in turn influenced future novels, such as those...