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  • Communities Built from Ruins:Social Economics in Victorian Novels of Bankruptcy
  • Leeann Hunter (bio)

Writer and political economist Harriet Martineau came of age during the banking crisis of the 1820s, when her father's business failed and she was compelled to earn a living. Martineau, who was a young aspiring writer at the time, responded to her father's calamity with unusual optimism. Poverty, it seemed, would liberate Martineau from the gendered restraints of gentility and allow her to pursue a profession in literary writing. In her Autobiography (1877), Martineau reflects that she and her sisters "have worked hard and usefully, won friends, reputation and independence, seen the world abundantly, abroad and at home, and, in short, have truly lived instead of vegetated" (142). For an ambitious daughter, financial ruin appears almost advantageous, which Martineau describes as "the blessing of a wholly new freedom" (142). A similar, albeit less cathartic, pattern of female empowerment in response to ruin is evident in the literature of the period. While Victorian novels rarely represent financial ruin as an outright benefit to daughters, they frequently suggest that daughters are positively transformed or liberated by such misfortunes. Bankruptcy narratives offered nineteenth-century writers an opportunity, I suggest, to explore the daughter heroine as an independent, economically minded character, not bound by the protection of her father. The fictional heroine, like Martineau, gains new freedom in the context of her father's ruin.

Victorian daughters of bankruptcy and insolvency, from Maggie Tulliver and Amy Dorrit to Hester Vernon and Isabel Vane, appear with such frequency in the nineteenth-century novel that previous commentators have dismissed their relevance as clichéd or incidental. Most noteworthy, Barbara Weiss considers the "remarkable number of heroines whose [End Page 137] fathers suffer bankruptcy" as a product of "one of the stock situations of popular drama" and a "standard cliché of the stage" (1986, 64, 58). Margaret Dalziel attributes the popularity of the daughters-of-bankruptcy plot to its historical context, characterized by a "period of financial instability, when fortunes were won and lost with a speed and frequency we can hardly realize" (1957, 33). I observe in contrast that the daughters-of-bankruptcy plot is not merely a casualty of the Victorian period and its literature but also a powerful rhetorical mechanism for promoting social and economic change, in terms of supporting women's widening engagement in the public sphere and promoting the social dimensions of economic exchange in the nineteenth century. For most of the century, daughters have little access to financial resources, and so most of their economic dealings adopt nonmonetary forms throughout Victorian bankruptcy narratives. The daughters who emerge as heroines of bankruptcy often initiate their own economic transactions that are characterized by social exchanges solidifying social bonds and obligations. Debt contracted in moderation on a person-to-person basis appears in a subset of Victorian bankruptcy narratives as the key to establishing steady social relationships within local communities. The strength of these communities of indebtedness is often reflected in the eyes of the daughters, both positively and negatively.

Bankruptcy, as demonstrated most notably by Barbara Weiss (1986), V. Markham Lester (1995), and Margot C. Finn (2003), figures as a central epidemic of Victorian economics and as a driving metaphor of the Victorian age, exposing moral weaknesses brewing beneath a society marked by rapid industrial progress, economic growth, and social change. Victorian bankruptcy narratives, which frequently feature father-daughter relationships, deploy the rhetoric of ruin in a way that condemns the commercial enterprises of the father and reinforces the value of community engagement through the daughter. These heroines of bankruptcy, I argue, further suggest how the healthy circulation of debts, carried on by trust and forgiveness, fortifies the health of a community, fostering social connection through interdependence on resources. At the same time, these strong associations between character and economy show a different side to ruin. Ruin is both economic and social in character: the father not only loses his financial resources but also damages his personal credit in the community. Similarly, the daughter could be ruined. In Victorian England, a woman could be ruined in two primary ways: she could fall from grace by engaging in...