The important thing is that people like the Cheerybles and Pickwick represent a stage of capitalist development in which the capitalist is normally an active member of a fairly small firm — that is also what Nicholas [in Nicholas Nickleby], Pip, and Arthur Clennam [in Little Dorrit] become — a man whose work bears a relation to his income similar to that of professional people to theirs. Such people as this (together with the professionals) were the basis of the “respectable" middle classes that Dickens represented.
The speculating mania of 1825-1826 and 1837 on the whole endorsed the morality behind this view of society, because they were followed by economic collapse, meaning loss and ruin for people like Mr. Nickleby. The railway boom of 1845-1846 meant ruin, too, for many, but it meant success for others, and by establishing the joint-stock company in a number of enormous undertakings pointed the way to the later developments of investing. By an Act of 1844 all joint-stock companies had to be registered. . . and the principle of limited liability was first recognized in the legislation of 1855-1856. The years between 1850 and 1866 were marked by a great increase in the number of small investors, and the later part of the period saw the growth of the system of finance companies. . . .
These changes are clearly reflected in Dickens's work. . . . In the earlier novels finance is very individualistic; from Dombey onwards, though the interest in money's personal power still continues, and is indeed a main theme of Great Expectations, money as a system is even more important. [pp. 164-166.]
House, Humphry. The Dickens World (1941), 2nd. ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
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Last modified 8 June 2007