‘Out?’ said the turnkey, ‘he’ll never get out, unless his creditors take him by the shoulders and shove him out.’ – Little Dorrit
‘His father speculated wildly, failed, and then killed himself, because he could not bear the disgrace. All his former friends shrunk from the disclosures that had to be made of his dishonest gambling—wild, hopeless struggles, made with other people's money, to regain his own moderate portion of wealth. No one came forwards to help the mother and this boy.’ – North & South
‘Did he fling himself down? who knows? for a vast speculation had fail’d,
And ever he mutter’d and madden’d, and ever wann’d with despair,
And out he walk’d when the wind like a broken worldling wail’d,
And the flying gold of the ruin’d woodlands drove thro’ the air.’ – Maud: A Monodrama
Financial risk overshadows the writing of Victorian England, and in particular three of its most famous writers: Elizabeth Gaskell, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Charles Dickens.
Industrial & Financial Revolution
During this period, the possibilities for speculation grew as the Industrial Revolution and the powerful machine of the British Empire gave rise to new technologies and ideas. It became possible for more ordinary people to invest in businesses and in a way that had not hitherto been possible. Their financial awareness gives these novels and poems a uniquely modern framework.
The different financial risks of the characters echoing those that have driven 21st century financial crisis, such as shorting (think along the lines Adam McKay’s ‘The Big Short’ and the US housing crisis that drove the 2008 recession), where the shorter borrows a certain amount of stock off a broker, then sells it to the market (betting that it will decrease in value). They then buy it back from the market for less than the amount that they sold it, and return the stock to the broker, able to keep the difference between their sale and purchase price.
Much of the financial focus of these works comes from personal experience on the part of the writers. Dickens’s father was imprisoned in debtors’ prison, and Dickens himself had to work to support his family: in later life he remained financially strict, always saving despite an ever-increasing income.
Tennyson’s father similarly suffered from financial strain after he was disinherited from his family’s estates in favour of his younger brother, the family’s tight monetary situation led Tennyson to, like Dickens, worry about and focus on money despite his literary success. Gaskell, a friend of both Tennyson and Dickens, had a less direct relationship with financial troubles, however, writing principally in Manchester after her marriage, much of her work focuses upon the plight of the poor industrial workers who lived in the city.
Human and Economic Relationships
These novels each in their own way attempt to understand the interactions between human relationships with economic relationships, putting these two different strands of the connections people have with each other under strain. For Dickens and for Gaskell whilst these interactions originally cause friction between the characters, in the end they drive romance and love to the fore when Margaret’s investment in Mr Thornton’s mill brings them romantically together. Similarly at the end of Bleak House Mr Woodcourt agrees to marry Esther despite her poverty and disfigurement.
The end of Maud, is however, less encouraging, the death of the character’s father after committing suicide because of a failed railway speculation overshadows the text, and the character’s grief effects his relationship with his lover, Maud. It is arranged by Maud’s brother that she should marry a collier, whose family is rich and who stands to inherit a substantial amount. The narrator challenges his rival to a duel, only to end up shooting Maud’s brother. Maud subsequently dies of grief, and the human relations of the poem are broken by the financial ones.