Author: Kent, Christopher
Date published: December 1, 2011
"DISTANT READING": VICTORIAN INVESTMENTS IN HISTORY AND THE NOVEL Henry, Nancy and Cannon Schmitt, eds. Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. x + 250 pp. $24.95 paper.
Jaffe, Audrey. The Affective Life of the Average Man: The Victorian Novel and the Stock-Market Graph. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010. x + 138 pp. $24.95 paper.
Wagner, Tamara S. Financial Speculation in Victorian Fiction: Plotting Money and the Novel Genre, 1815-1901. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010. viii + 232 pp. $44.95 cloth.
"Distant reading," according to Audrey Jaffe, is the visual metaphor used by Franco Moretti "to describe a literary analysis that relies on data rather than the close reading of texts" (102). Such distance can be either spatial or temporal. Although Moretti's version of distance seems to be mainly temporal, Jaffe's version seems largely spatial. As a historian I can relate particularly to Moretti's version of the metaphor, which evokes the losses and gains temporal distance gives to the study of any past, where gains from knowing large outcomes are balanced by loss of fine detail. While we are all of necessity "distant readers" of Victorian Britain, literature scholars are perhaps more comfortable with the gains, the privileged position of knowing what the Victorians did not-"how it all turned out"- than are historians. Distant reading facilitates the finding of patterns and making of generalizations essential to theorization. Here too historians, members of a profession notoriously suspicious of theorizing, tend to be less at ease than literature scholars. Conscious of the inevitability of presentism-we cannot renounce our temporal privilege-historians worry about its cost, the danger of reading the past as if its known outcome were the only one possible, and losing the sense of what it was like for the Victorians to live with complex contingencies and an open future-the human condition- that only the fading details can give us. And we may be tempted to supply our own details to make up the loss, thus overfamiliarizing the past. That temptation is particularly strong in teaching undergraduates to help them relate to the past.
The best way of resisting presentism, history students are assured, is to get into the sources, the documents created by those we are studying. What better source, then, for understanding Victorian Britain than the novels it produced in profusion, particularly those novels that subscribed to the dominant literary ideology of realism, those novels whose purpose was to accurately represent the world in which they were set? Now that students, in North America at least, are more likely to get their British history from literature than from history classes, it is all the more important to think about the complex relationship between the novel and history, their longstanding rivalry as claimants to the terrain of the real, and how we read and teach them. The three books reviewed here make valuable contributions to our understanding of that relationship. Audrey Jaffe's and Tamara Wagner's are the work of literary scholars. Nancy Henry and Cannon Schmitt's is a collection in which literary scholars and historians are equally represented.
The current hegemony of the novel as history is strengthened by changes in the historical profession. Forty years ago social history was at high tide, strongly driven by a left-leaning desire to recover the lost history of the working class, and scornful of its oppressors, a middle class whose shameful history was unworthy of the social historian's attention. The history of the bourgeoisie was best left to that bourgeois institution, the novel, and to its custodians in English departments. The latter were not entirely comfortable with their charges, and directed almost all their attention to a select few novels that met the requirements of a canon defined by purposefully nonhistorical criteria. How different things are now. The middle class occupy stage center in Victorian history, the working class have faded as its privileged subject, and English departments have largely abandoned the canon, their members lavishing attention on novels whose lack of literary merit is compensated for by their historical interest. Historians themselves have recovered interest in the middle class, particularly under the rubric of cultural history, and are themselves taking a new interest in the novel whose fictionality their profession once deemed antithetical to "historical truth."
Only a few years after George Eliot in her "realist manifesto" of 1856, "The Natural History of German Life," spoke of the "splendid conquests of modern generalization" (56), the two titular heads of the British historical profession, Goldwin Smith and Charles Kingsley, Regius Professors of Modern History at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, delivered inaugural lectures warning against the pretensions of thinkers like Thomas Buckle, August Comte, and Adolphe Quetelet to create a science of history incorporating laws of human behavior that threatened the critically important ideas of human individuality and free will. Kingsley was particularly scathing in dismissing the idea of the "average man" as a historical figure. "The new science of little men," he declared, "can be no science at all, because the average man is not the normal man." It was the great man, rather, who established "the true 'norma' and standard of human character..." (49). Though neither Smith nor Kingsley represented the cutting edge of historical scholarship. Their views were representative of professional hostility to positivist history. Given such resistance to a history that took ordinary people seriously, it is not surprising that the novel claimed this neglected territory as its own. The average man is still a taboo figure for social historians who prefer to populate their books with necessarily non-average real people even when a fictional average person might offer a more accurate representation of reality. Audrey Jaffe, following in some respects the historical epistemology of Mary Poovey and Nancy Armstrong, shows how the novel organized the ways in which Victorians thought about society, even creating new social realities-such as the average man. Her fine chapter "Middlemarch: The Affective Life of the Average Man" shows Eliot's characters defining themselves by reference to social norms, for instance Lydgate fighting against his "spots of commonness": "Eliot's novel represents, reproduces, and recreates a sense of what it feels like to be a statistic: the affective life of the average man" (26). This is an example of Jaffe's version of "distant reading," in which individual identity is shaped by "attachment to a series of consolidating abstractions" (103). Here the distance effect refers to individuals internalizing ideas that have been simplified -distanced-by quantification. In another chapter she focuses on Dickens's David Copperfield and the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill to find another well-framed example of distant reading in the idea of happiness as a collective construct derived from outside ourselves, even from the novel, and then internalized, sometimes in hard financial terms as with Mr. Micawber's celebrated definition of happiness, sometimes as Mill's open-ended pursuit.
As her book's sub-title indicates, Jaffe is heavily invested in the idea of the stock market graph-over-invested, I think. We learn that the book was written largely as a response to the antics of the stock markets between the dot-com crash of 2000 and the global financial meltdown of 2008 in the belief that the behavior of the contemporary investor and the Victorian investor are mutually illuminating. She sees the stock market graph as a prime example of distant reading, with investors reading their own anxieties and ambitions into and out of what comes to be taken as a national index of the economy-a sort of electrocardiograph of the nation's and hence one's own economic heartbeat. Such a reading of present-day stock market graphs is a well-worn trope, but I think Jaffe goes astray in drawing her Victorian parallel, particularly in her chapter "Cardiac Excitability: Impulse, Restraint, and the 'Pulse of the People,'" which draws heavily on the mushrooming contemporary American literature of the stock market. Although she states that "the literal presence of the graph is not required" (8) by her readings, her discussion of the stock market plainly implies the literal presence of a stock market graph of the kind we are all familiar with, but which simply did not exist in Victorian Britain. Such a graph requires a market index: the first of these, New York's Dow Jones industrial average, was not created until1896, and most surprisingly, the standard London Stock Market index, the FTSE 100, was only inaugurated in 1984. While selected stock prices could be found deep inside the Victorian press, where interested investors sought them out, the Victorians knew no arresting headline index of the kind that haunts Jaffe's, and our own, imaginations.
It is nonetheless true, as Tamara Wagner asserts, that "financial plots" (2) were crucially important to the development of the Victorian novel. Although this is evident even in canonical works, Wagner builds much of her discussion on less familiar works. The credibility of these plots depended on their being grounded in actuality, but Wagner is anxious to demonstrate that they are more than just fodder for historians (long the role of the noncanonical text). Likewise, they are more than "mere" reflection (Wagner regularly handcuffs "reflection" to "mere.") Part of her declared theoretical project involves going beyond the "purely contextual" and restoring the formalist dimension distinctive to literary analysis. This she does taking financial speculation as an extended metaphor for some of Victorian society's central anxieties and examining its employment by the novel's various sub-genres, particularly the silver-fork novel, the sensational novel, and the mainstream realist novel. The genres form something of a progression, though the sensation novel's interruption of the stately progress of realism in the middle of the so-called "Age of Equipoise" constitutes a striking rupture that deserves greater notice from cultural historians (literature scholars have been more attentive). But Wagner's interest is particularly in the self-reflexivity of the novel's treatment of financial speculation, as it infiltrates the established "property plot" strikingly in Jane Austen's Sanditon. This plot gathers steam as the railway boom puts the "engine in the boudoir" of the silver-fork novel and finally takes control in "The Sensational Stock-Market Novel"-the title of her second chapter. She illustrates a high degree of awareness among novelists of the genres they both practiced and parodically played off of, as for instance in the silver-fork notes ironically struck by Elizabeth Gaskell and the anti-sensational sensationalism of Anthony Trollope and Margaret Oliphant.
As Wagner shows, speculation was an irresistible theme for the Victorian novel since it captured so vividly the collision between the moral economy and the financial economy, and the mystified relationship between bonds, bank notes, bills of exchange and stock certificates, and material wealth. The representational contract between physical assets and financial paper cashable by the holder had a special fascination for novelists whose livelihood was built on a representational contract between their paper-novels-and social reality cashable by the reader. "Bad paper" in the latter market was exemplified by Lady Carbury's trashy society novels in Trollope's The Way We Live Now. All three books pay considerable attention to the always vexing relationship between investment and speculation. Jaffe makes this a central theme in her chapter on Trollope's The Prime Minister and the stock market, in which both Ferdinand Lopez and his wife are seen as "irrationally exuberant" speculators (with a nod to Alan Greenspan who will soon need a footnote, if he does not already). The wife speculates emotionally in Lopez as a suitable husband, while he speculates and loses all he has, including his falsely acquired credit as a gentleman, in such ventures as coffee and guano futures. While Lopez is not a particularly likeable character, Trollope's hostile portrait of him fails to convey the useful market role played by those like him who trade in commodity futures contracts, which are promises to provide a fixed amount of a commodity at a fixed price at a fixed future date. Such traders are dealing in price guarantees, in effect a form of insurance, for the coffee merchant, and hoping to profit from their risk by trading in the contract in the futures market before the delivery date. This is a risky market because it is highly leveraged, the contracts trading at a very small proportion of the final delivery price.
Jaffe and Wagner both argue persuasively that the Victorian novel contributed largely to the popular understanding, and misunderstanding, of the difference between speculation and investment, though they themselves present the difference as rather fuzzier than it is. Jaffe seems to regard all investment as essentially speculative and to see it as a matter of buying for a price rise. But the classic investor is mainly interested in return on capital, most of which is interest or dividend income, something neither Jaffe nor Wagner ever mention. George Eliot was one such investor, as her well constructed stock and bond portfolio, detailed by Nancy Henry's George Eliot and the British Empire, clearly indicates. Wagner in one of her chapters draws a particularly bleak picture of Victorian speculative housing without making it clear that virtually all urban housing is speculative in the sense that it is built without a contracted buyer. She is perhaps right that the Victorian novel tended to depict towns and especially suburbs darkly, but it is worth keeping in mind that the novel's problems with urbanism, like its problems with capitalism, however constructive of readers' reality, were not the only contributor to that construct, even if they are that for many distant readers today.
The collection of essays edited by Nancy Henry and Cannon Schmitt is an expanded version of the autumn 2002 issue of Victorian Studies where most of them first appeared and includes Audrey Jaffe's essay "Trollope in the Stock Market," reprinted yet again in her book. All deserve attention, though Ian Baucom's is rather an outlier, dealing with an appalling episode in the history of the African slave trade when in 1781 132 slaves were drowned, most of them forcibly at the captain's orders, because his ship, the Zong, had insufficient drinking water. The ship's owners successfully claimed in court that this loss was covered by their insurance. Baucom invokes an impressive group of theoretical heavyweights from Kant to Derrida in arguing that this event deserves a historical privilege that puts it on the level of the French Revolution in the lofty realms of capital H History. The rest of the essays engage with history at a level more modest but still significant, and all demonstrate an impressive openness to interdisciplinarity. Thus Timothy Alborn's essay reminds us that life insurance as we know it was essentially a Victorian invention, and perhaps the most notable consequence of the invention of the statistically valid average man, a construct built on increasing reliable census-based information about collective mortality rates. Particularly fascinating is his description of how life insurance won a mass market by presenting itself as not just a grim financial product whose benefits the insured would not live to see, but one which could give customers the pleasure of seeing the value of their policies increase even while they were alive. Since insurance companies, with their huge financial reserves, were major investors in the Victorian economy, they were consequently the chief means through which the "average Victorian" as a policy holder invested, if indirectly, in that economy.
Several of the essays engage the issue of speculation so central to Jaffe's and Wagner's books. It is worth noting that life insurance itself, often seen as the antithesis of a speculative investment, was initially closely tied to gambling and was even criticized as a type of betting on death with the insurer setting the odds, particularly if one took out a policy on the life of a stranger. David Itzkowitz's essay specifically examines the vexed continuum of gambling, speculation, and investment, and its attendant moral anxieties. He identifies certain important historical reference points, such as the Gaming Act of 1845 that made gambling debts unenforceable by law, and the repeal in 1860 of a law dating to 1734 outlawing futures in certain securities. The financial market had some success in breaking the association between speculation and gambling, though as we learn from Jaffe and Wagner the Victorian novel was heavily invested in maintaining that association, about which it is interesting to speculate on the balance between its shaping and its reflecting popular perceptions.
Mary Poovey addresses the connections between financial journalism and the novel, particularly the tension between secrecy as a necessary element in financial dealings and disclosure as a journalistic function. She examines the dynamic of secrecy and disclosure that sustains the plot of the realistic novel, Eliot's Mill on the Floss providing her example. Secrecy is a central issue in the historian Donna Loftus's chapter on the arrival of the surprisingly quick and largely unopposed extension of limited liability in mid-Victorian Britain. The usual emphasis in such discussions is on the widespread concern about the moral hazard of limited liability's insulating investors from business risk. However, she focuses on the interesting tension between the democratization of investment, particularly working-class investment in capitalism that some reformers hoped limited liability would enable, and capital's reluctance to democratize knowledge and divulge its secrets concerning such sensitive issues as prices and profits that management felt it had to protect in order to compete effectively in the marketplace. Investor knowledge is also a central theme in George Robb's chapter "Ladies of the Ticker," which discusses the nature and extent of female investment. Robb emphasizes the widespread perception that women, tempted by the risks of higher returns on their slender capital, were more likely to be the ignorant victims of financial swindlers. The novel was particularly drawn to this stereotype and Robb notes the propensity of the novel, especially the sensation novel, to emphasize the atypical as more productive of interesting plots. Was reality's "average female investor" less ignorant than the novel's? Certainly George Eliot was. There is an interesting irony in the fact that, as Robb notes, two of the most successful Victorian authors of novels with financial plots were Mrs. Henry Wood and Emma Marshall, whose husbands were failed bankers.
Nancy Henry's chapter "Suicide and Finance in Victorian Fiction" specifically addresses the issue of typicality, which has traditionally been a particular concern for historians using the novel as historical evidence. She notes that suicide as a response to financial distress was considerably less common in Victorian life than in the Victorian novel, as certain Victorians themselves, notably Harriet Martineau and G. H. Lewes, pointed out. She suggests that the appeal of the "suicide myth" for novelists lay in its convenience in enabling them to come to terms with financial topics with which they were uncomfortable, or even held in contempt. What is even more interesting is the persistent appeal of this Victorian myth sustained by the popular press despite the failure of actual stockbrokers to jump out of windows when the market crashes. This is a good example of the power of the novel to affect the reality of the popular imaginary, a central theme of all the books under review here. It is a central theme too in Cannon Schmitt's discussion of the sophisticated historical realism of Conrad's Nostromo, which he calls "the first modernist novel of finance" (396). Its complex temporal structure is persuasively presented as necessary to Conrad's purpose of presenting the profound historical truth that what people think and say happens can often be more important than what actually happens. Nowhere perhaps is this more true than in explaining financial history.
Victorian Investments closes with a rewarding "Afterword" by Martin Daunton, whose generous and incisive comments on each of its essays are based on an unparalleled command of modern British economic and social history. More than that, his essay is a small masterpiece from which nobody interested in these three books can fail to profit. His distant vision reminds us of the gap between the economic assumptions that drive our post-Keynesian world and those of the ruling Victorian ideology one might conveniently call Gladstonianism. One of its features, pace postcolonialism (largely absent in these books), was a perhaps franker recognition of the moral dimension in economics than the modern science of economics is comfortable with. The Victorian novel is an invaluable guide to that distant landscape because it contributed significantly to shaping it, as these authors effectively show. Among them, the literature scholars help particularly to bring us closer to it, the historians to keep it distant.
UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN, CANADA
Eliot, George. "The Natural History of German Life." Westminster Review 66 (July 1856): 51-79.
Kingsley, Charles. The Limits of Exact Science as Applied to History. Cambridge: Macmillan, 1860.