- Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture
Victorian Investments is a nicely balanced project, bringing together essays by five literary critics and five economic historians. In their introduction, Henry and Schmitt speak of a period of "intense interdisciplinarity" (3) for the study of Victorian finance, and their collection assesses this work over the past decade or so. It appears, however, that critics and historians continue to approach their subject with substantially different assumptions and methods. Their efforts may run parallel, but true interdisciplinarity still lies some distance off.
The historians here typically choose questions that have, in principle, a reasonably straightforward answer. Why did Victorian insurance companies pay bonuses to their policyholders, and how did their practice change in the course of the century? Where did Victorians draw the lines between investment, speculation, and gambling? To what extent were Victorian women able to participate in business and finance? What was the argument about whether limited liability companies were better than family firms, and how was it resolved? Such questions address key issues in Victorian culture and suggest novel approaches to interpreting Victorian novels. These five historians also assume that such questions should be raised, as Martin Daunton puts it, "in a more systematic way, not through a few major novels by Conrad or Trollope but through a much wider analysis of a variety of sources" (205).
The literary critic Mary Poovey—taking her as representative—chooses an opposite approach. She borrows the trope of "disclosure and secrecy" (40) from the vocabulary of finance, then uses it to generate a reading of The Mill on the Floss, in which she challenges "the nineteenth-century fantasy that accounting constitutes an absolutely certain and effective kind of writing" (56). The historians of this collection aspire to a comprehensive and determinate account of some aspect of Victorian finance; the critics assume the intrinsically hermetic and unreliable nature of financial discourse. For them, there is only fiction—or only ungrounded speculation—everywhere that you can look.
The collection is thus, in one respect, an encounter between historicism and New Historicism. Ian Baucom's "Signum Rememorativum" is an extreme case of using the anecdotal tail of New Historicism to wag the systematic or empirical dog. It is the anecdote that generates the rule, rather than being the exception to it. The rule proposed by Baucom is that the nineteenth-century system of finance capital could not have emerged without insurance, which separates the nominal value of a commodity from the requirement that value must be tied to something having material existence. Baucom places the inception of this "insurance principle" (28) in the Zong massacre of 1781, when Captain Luke Collingwood threw 133 slaves overboard on the pretext that his ship did not have enough drinking water for everyone on it. The ship's [End Page 233] owners then claimed compensation from their insurers for the loss of part of their human cargo. Abolitionists accused Collingwood of murder, but he was exonerated, and the claim was paid.
A historian like the ones represented in this volume might begin by considering the Zong massacre as part of the centuries-long Western trade in slaves. For Baucom, though, it is an "image fragment" (34) that can be attached to just about anything Western, from the "Heideggerian life-world" (132) to Benjamin's Arcades Project or the films of Derek Jarman. Conversely, it does not seem to matter to Baucom that maritime insurance was invented not in 1781 but some four hundred years earlier, in Italy. Nor does he even mention the probable motive for Collingwood's action, which was that many of his slaves were sick and if they had died after having been disembarked in Jamaica, the insurers would not have paid for the loss. Baucom does consider the brief that the abolitionist Granville Sharp wrote against Collingwood. One slave had climbed back on board, so 132 had died. Granville's brief had 138 pages, of which six were blank: 132 deaths, 132 pages of writing. "Is this number...