This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of 11 November 2016 (p.35). The author has formatted it for the Victorian Web, adding the two long (inset) quotations, page numbers from the book under review, illustrations from our own website, captions, and links.

Romantic notions to the contrary, financial matters feature as significantly in an age's creative productions as in its monetary policies and transactions. As Daniel Bivona and Marlene Tromp explain in their useful introduction to Culture & Money in the Nineteenth Century: Abstracting Economics, the eight chapters in this collection were selected from papers delivered at their "Money/Myths" conference of 2011, and build on the New Economic Criticism of the later twentieth century:

We believe that these chapters as a body launch a dialogue about the new avenues of reading that open before us intellectually when we take the kind of complex material constructs that critics have traced in the nineteenth century and read the ways in which they were abstracted into a larger social world. Too often money has been treated as either simply a metaphor or simply a material fact. With this volume, we hope to bridge the gap between these two poles and to build a more meaningful way of reading money and its abstractions in the nineteenth century. [20]

Moving beyond obvious topics like copyright, or the deployment of financial motives and plot contrivances in fiction, the papers have been divided into areas of "broad" and "particular" abstractions, and deal with a variety of subjects. Aeron Hunt provides the first chapter, exploring Victorian ideas about the heritability or otherwise of business acumen with the help of Margaret Oliphant's Phoebe Junior (1876) and Hester (1883); and Tromp herself closes the book, appropriately enough, with the often troubling power of wills to redistribute wealth, not simply within the family or even society, but beyond both: Old Featherstone's will in George Eliot's Middlemarch becomes an example of the tensions and consequences that this could produce when the money reaches the "illegitimate foreigner" (206) Joshua Rigg.

Textile workers (calico printers) in a stained glass window designed by Stephen Adam in the Maryhill Burgh Halls, Glasgow.

There is nothing in the collection about Trollope, which may surprise some readers, and the major author most fully discussed here is not Dickens, but (rather refreshingly) Sir Walter Scott, whose ideas on nationhood emerge from Kathryn Pratt Russell's examination of the textile industry in novels like St Ronan's Well (1823) and Chronicles of the Canongate (1827). Harriet Martineau also makes an important appearance in Bivona's own chapter on Darwin's ideas of competition, with her influential Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-3). However, the range is wider than this suggests, chronologically, geographically and conceptually. Jennifer Hayward, for instance, introduces with a flourish "El Metálico Lord" — Admiral Thomas Cochrane, who in the late 1850s decided to commodify himself by publishing a self-promotional account of his revolutionary activities in South America.


Confession of an Indian, with Bramwell Booth, General of the Salvation Army, on the right. This photograph happens to have been taken at a meeting in England, but Suzanne Daly's chapter deals especially with "Salvationism in the Colonial Context."

Other chapters deal with nineteenth-century monetary policies in post-Civil War America, and the shifting trope of the Indian beggar, who became a useful ideological counter for missionaries, administrators and socialists alike — a figure at once, Suzanne Daly says wittily, "all too real and wholly invented" (149):

Indian poverty as a British master trope gathered force throughout the nineteenth century, as various interests insisted on its veracity to shore up a range of ideological positions. By incorporating poverty into the grammar of colonialism over the course of a century, writers with widely divergent agendas gradually initiated a new truth about India that persists into the present, carrying with it a multitude of after-effects.... the aura of eternal presence that settled round the Indian beggar by the century's end made the problem of Indian poverty seem all but insoluble and thus another alibi for a continued British presence. [145-46, 149]

The word "value" itself transfers easily from the material to the spiritual, calling at all stops in between; productivity, competition and many other terms apply as much to the creative as the economic sector; and the cultural market-place is as thronged, complex and international in its dealings as any stock market. Art collecting, for example, has long been a form of investment. Still, Cordelia Smith's chapter on art unions and gambling may also surprise many: subscribers to the art union lotteries had a chance of winning an artwork in a prize draw. There is nothing new, then, about raising money for heritage projects through the National Lottery, or "crowd-funding," or, indeed, "lucky-dip" sales of unsigned art-postcards. Collections of conference papers can be heavy going, but these essays give some intriguing insights into what is evidently a fruitful, revealing and ever-relevant field of interdisciplinary study.

Related Material


Bivona, Daniel, and Marlene Tromp, ed.Culture & Money in the Nineteenth Century: Abstracting Economics. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2016. Hardback. 230 pp. £66.00. ISBN: 978 0 8214 2196 3.

Created 8 January 2017