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  • The Victorian Discourse of Gambling: Speculations on Middlemarch and The Duke’s Children
  • J. Jeffrey Franklin

When I was young, people called me a gambler. As the scale of my operations increased I became known as a speculator. Now I am called a banker. But I have been doing the same thing all the time.

— Sir Earnest Cassel, Banker to Edward VII1

At a time when the poor were existing on wages that could be counted in shillings per week rather than pounds, and women could be employed at a penny an hour in the Welsh coal-mines, Harry Hastings lost more than one hundred thousand pounds in the two- and-a-half minutes in which it took to run the Derby.

— Henry Blyth, Hell and Hazard2


The discourse of money is so ubiquitous in the British Victorian novel that any analysis of it runs the risk, on the one hand, of becoming trivial and, on the other hand, of becoming embroiled in the broadest and most pressing issues of the nineteenth century. One such issue that cannot be avoided is the bourgeois revolution, the widely noted social paradigm shift from the predominantly aristocratic, status-based ideologies of the eighteenth century to the Whig ideologies of commerce and work that came to dominate the nineteenth century. 3 Thus it may not be surprising that the readings of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Anthony Trollope’s The Duke’s Children offered here find the discourse of money to be a primary vehicle for the progressive or liberal ideologies of the ascending middle class. However, I move beyond this general, speculative level toward more specific inquiries: exactly how is money represented in these novels, and how might those representations be read in relation to the ways in which subjects and social institutions were constructed and served? The analysis concentrates on the figure of gambling as a component of the discourse of money, and gambling is shown to link together all other components within that discourse. [End Page 899] The figure of gambling is used to trace connections at a broader level between the discourse of money and two other Victorian discourses: marriage and work. Gambling is analyzed as that which binds together and problematizes this central trinity of Victorian concerns.

Almost every character in novels such as Middlemarch and The Duke’s Children is connected to other characters by specified and publicly observed monetary relations. In Middlemarch, for example, Fred Vincy is connected to his miserly uncle Featherstone by inheritance; Rosamond Vincy’s marriage to Dr. Lydgate comes to be dominated by the issue of debt; Dorothea Brooke’s relation to Lydgate, as to Reverend Farebrother, is one of charity; the banker Bulstrode is bound to the disreputable character Raffles (and to his own past deeds) by ill-gotten money and blackmail. While money is by no means the only, and often not the primary, determinant of relationships in Victorian fiction, it is the primary form that social evaluations of relationships assume. So while Dorothea’s scandalous second marriage to Will Ladislaw is not about money, it is evaluated by Middlemarch society in terms of money. The same may be said of Frank Tregear’s marriage to Lady Mary Palliser in The Duke’s Children (although his motives are arguably more mixed). While Lydgate’s motive for twice standing by Bulstrode when the rest of Middlemarch has turned against him is not primarily pecuniary, it is socially evaluated in terms of money, specifically bribery.

Money, then, is the public yardstick of private relationship; part of the ideological work of the discourse of money was to make the private public. 4 The danger of gambling, whether with money or relationships, is that it can transpose private loss or gain into the public domain of scandal: on being told by his son Silverbridge that his gambling is “nothing to speak of,” the Duke of Omnium replies, “Nothing to speak of is so apt to grow into that which has to be spoken of.” 5 The very same sort of risks are shown in Victorian fiction to exist in relation to marriage, which never is considered entirely apart from issues of money...

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