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Victorian Studies 45.1 (2002) 7-16

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Victorian Investments

Cannon Schmitt, Nancy Henry, and Anjali Arondekar

In 1860, John Hollingshead, writing in All the Year Round, complained about the inadequate if not incompetent auditing practices of joint-stock companies. Only when company managers and shareholders are compelled to "call in professional accountants, and resort to an 'independent investigation,'" he argued, do they learn that "real auditing is a necessary part of a business organization, and that it becomes all the more costly the longer it has been neglected" (325). Victorian auditing scandals, as well as the crashes, frauds, and swindles that characterized the nineteenth century's burgeoning culture of investment, can sound uncannily familiar, affecting the way we read both the past and the present. It is tempting if not inevitable, for example, to see the dot-com bubble of the 1990s in the Railway Mania of the 1840s, or to view the Enron "debacle" as a contemporary equivalent of Overend and Gurney's collapse in 1866. In such crises, similarities between our own economy and that of the Victorians become apparent—not least because they reveal the extent to which, in both cultures, the stock market is the financial "heart" of the nation.

Moving beyond simple correspondences, this special issue explores the processes through which investing, particularly investing in the stock market, became a more pervasive part of Victorian financial life. It examines the institutions and technologies that mediated between companies and those who invested in them and that, increasingly, conducted the emotions that investors were beginning to have about the performance of their "stocks and shares." Studying these distinctively Victorian ways of facilitating investment affords us a means to understand Victorian culture better as well as to trace the genealogies of current monetary assumptions and practices. Not only do we see the Victorian period through our own cultural lens, then, but we also see in nineteenth-century Britain some of the formative occasions in the subsequent history of finance. Thus the cultural moment of the [End Page 7] early twenty-first century is particularly propitious for reassessing what and how we know about the Victorians and their investments.

When we began discussing this project in 1999, the bull market had generated an unprecedented popular interest in the stock market. As both an economic and a cultural phenomenon, expanded participation (and therefore heightened emotional "investment") in the market, we suspected, was subtly shaping scholarly approaches to the nineteenth century. It seemed to us that new trends were emerging: Victorian finance generated more debate, and different approaches to thinking about that finance were taking hold. Such approaches were often inheritors of Marxist thinking—for example, in their implicit assumptions about the relationship between the financial infrastructure and literary texts—but often lacked that tradition's ideological critique of capitalism. As our own stock market became more important to us, it seemed, the Victorian stock market was becoming more important to the Victorians.

We wanted to make more precise the contours of that importance: to identify shifts in the analysis of Victorian investment practices and to give shape to an emergent field of Victorian cultural studies devoted to a specific part of the larger financial system. 1 At its most basic level, the new scholarship on Victorian investments presented here helps explain concepts that are central to much Victorian writing. For those outside the history of economics and business, encountering references to the funds, life assurance bonuses, and limited liability— be they in Walter Bagehot or Anthony Trollope—can confound understanding. Today's readers may resemble Captain Cuttle from Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son (1848), who "felt bound to read the quotations of the Funds every day, though he was unable to make out, on any principle of navigation, what the figures meant, and could have very well dispensed with the fractions" (ch. 25). Such befuddled Victorians gradually learned about the workings of their financial system through literature and financial journalism; their present-day avatars may turn to the essays collected here.

These essays focus less on bubbles and scams than...


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