Finance and Money as Represented in Nineteenth-Century Literature Historical Perspective - Essay

Historical Perspective

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Vernon (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Misers and Spendthrifts," in Money and Fiction: Literary Realism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 27-41.

[In the following excerpt, Vernon gives an historical overview on the love of money (especially paper money), which led to the comeback of one old literary type (the miser) and to the rise of a new literary type (the spendthrift).]

Though they weren't necessarily listening to each other, when it came to money nineteenth-century novelists could speak with one voice. "Money is life. Money is all powerful," says Balzac's Père Goriot. The narrator of Dostoevsky's The Gambler exclaims, "Money is everything!" In Dickens's Our Mutual Friend Bella says, "I have money always in my thoughts and desires," and in Hardy's The Return of the Native Diggory Venn echoes her: "Money is all my dream." Dr. Thorne, in Trollope's Doctor Thorne: "A rich man can buy anything." Dombey, in Dickens's Dombey and Son: "Money, Paul, can do anything."

Bromfield Corey's statement in The Rise of Silas Lapham may serve for the entire century: "But there's no doubt but money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry, of our age. It's the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination."

Such comments could be multiplied, and they will be in the course of this and the following chapters. But the question naturally occurs: Couldn't similar remarks be ferreted out of other centuries as well? For example, an eleventh-century Frenchman, cited by Fernand Braudel: "Money, not Caesar, is everything now."1 Or Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century: "No man can be ignorant of the idolatry that is generally committed in these degenerate times to money, as if it could do all things public and private."2 Is the nineteenth century unique, then? Or do we tend to see the worship of money in any period we look at closely, much like J. H. Hexter's description of the historian who sees the rise of the middle class as typical of the period he specializes in?3

There are several answers to this question, none of them simple. We might begin by pointing out that from approximately the fifteenth to the nineteenth century the middle class in Europe was steadily and continuously on the rise, so that historians who isolate one century or a portion of a century and note the bulge are in a sense correct; but they are noting a fragment of a continuous curve. The same could be said with regard to money, though there are qualitative differences too in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Braudel sees capitalism as a phenomenon "gradually gaining ground" in Europe from 1400 to 1800.4 Naturally the love of money would gain ground in this period too, though the consciousness of the idolatry of such love, of course, goes back to Paul's First Epistle to Timothy—and before. In a sense the nineteenth century was the climax to a movement whose slow beginnings reach back to antiquity. The nineteenth century was also "a violent breakthrough, revolution, total upheaval,"5 as Braudel says—but one whose preparation was long in the making. As Braudel shows in his massive three-volume study, the Industrial Revolution was not the beginning of capitalism, but the final climactic stage of a long process in which its characteristic devices and apparatus—credit, speculation, bills of exchange, banks, investment capital—evolved largely out of international trade. "With the coming of steam," he says, "the pace of the West increased as if by magic. But the magic can be explained: it had been prepared and made possible in advance. To paraphrase a historian (Pierre Léon), first came evolution (a slow rise) and then revolution (an acceleration): two connected movements."6

This increased pace of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was something palpably felt, and it certainly contributed to that sense of an economy and society heating up and rushing about, of which money became a chief image. (The other chief image, at least in the second half of the nineteenth century, was the railroad.) For by the nineteenth century money was qualitatively different from money in previous ages: it was symbolic money—paper. Again, the roots of this change go back several hundred years, and it was still in progress in the nineteenth century. The widespread acceptance of paper money, however, is unique to the nineteenth century and is one of the major reasons such universals as "everything" and "anything" so often surface in remarks about money. Money was "the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination" because its power to a great extent resided in the imagination, in contemplating its power. Of course, its possession entailed unexpected difficulties: once gained, it could be lost, and consequently much of one's energy had to be expended not in exercising that wonderful power, but in turning it to the end of preserving and increasing itself. Particularly in the form of paper, it could easily be lost—as novels like Dickens's Little Dorrit and Trollope's The Way We Live Now dramatize—so the acceptance of paper money was always qualified by lingering distrust, as we shall see. Dickens and Trollope describe the typical nightmare of speculation: the (largely dishonest) business venture that draws in hordes of investors and turns out to be a bubble. But such nightmares would not be possible without the dream of sudden fortune also made possible by paper money and speculation. In the nineteenth century money came to the fore in part because people had learned what large amounts of it could do, in the form of capital, and because paper money came to symbolize this volatile, expansive force of capital. Paper money is a "circulation like the blood"7 because without it all that energy would dissipate. It "keeps the land alive"8 because it touches everyone, rich and poor, and enmeshes society from top to bottom in a common set of values, most of which boil down to the importance of obtaining money.

None of this happened overnight, however. The history of paper money is the history of an ancient institution greeted with distrust by almost everyone except merchants and traders. As Braudel points out, China had paper money as early as the ninth century, though it disappeared by the fourteenth, and Islam had developed most known forms of paper money by the time of the Crusades.9 In the West—in Europe and England—the "discovery" of paper money in the late seventeenth century was a rediscovery: "As soon as men learnt to write and had coins to handle, they had replaced cash with written documents, notes, promises and orders."10 But such men were almost exclusively merchants. Others used metal—gold, silver, and copper coins—or paid each other in kind (in produce or commodities), or bartered. In England paper money developed very slowly in the seventeenth century and scarcely was used outside London.11 Its two chief forms were the goldsmith's note and the bill of exchange. In London and Stockholm in the late seventeenth century, goldsmiths discovered they could retain just a percentage of their depositors' gold in the till and lend out the rest at interest. The receipt or note the goldsmith (or banker) gave his depositor was a promise to pay him cash, but it came to be "passed from hand to hand as a substitute for cash."12 Even more common a substitute were bills of exchange (bills issued against a consignment of commodities), which merchants often sold to lenders at a discount. According to Braudel, bills of exchange became so widely used in most European countries that by the eighteenth century the sheer volume of paper money—especially bills of exchange—exceeded that of hard currency.13 I should emphasize again, however, that this was a specialized money, still used almost exclusively by merchants and traders. " 'I propose,' said Mr. Micawber, 'Bills—a convenience to the mercantile world, for which, I believe, we are originally indebted to the Jews, who appear to me to have had a devilish deal too much to do with them ever since—because they are negotiable.' " Micawber is wrong about the Jews—the West learned the practice of issuing bills of exchange from Islam14—but otherwise correct: merchants used them, banks and money brokers cashed them, and like bank notes they were negotiable and came to be passed from hand to hand as a substitute for coins, the only currency previously in use. Thus the notes Defoe's Colonel Jack steals from a gentleman's pocket are both goldsmith's notes and bills of exchange.

But the very specialized nature of such forms of paper marks them as distinct from most paper money in the nineteenth century. By the nineteenth century, even workers were often paid in bank notes, especially in England.15 "From 1797 to 1821," says Robin M. Reeve, "gold coins virtually disappeared from circulation: instead the country relied upon bank notes, about half of which were Bank of England notes while the remainder were issued by country banks."16 In 1833, Bank of England notes became legal tender; after 1844 no new banks could issue notes, and bank notes other than those issued by the Bank of England gradually disappeared. Money, like capital, became impersonal and mobile. One followed upon the other, and both developments were inseparable from the Industrial Revolution. Of course, as Braudel repeatedly points out, the habit of lending capital for industry (especially mining) and for trade was firmly established before the Industrial Revolution.17 But in 1760, says T. S. Ashton, "there was nothing that could justly be called a capital market. Lending was still largely a local and personal matter. By 1830 the volume of investable funds had grown beyond measure. Banks, and other institutions, served as pools from which capital, brought by innumerable streams, flowed to industries at home and abroad…. Capital was becoming impersonal—'blind,' as some say—and highly mobile."18 Statistics bear this out and underline the nineteenth century's special claim to be the age of money; for example, the increase of banks in England from 280 in 1793 to 626 in 1815.19

All this said, it is important to keep in mind that old habits of thought persisted, especially as a refuge against the new. The nineteenth century is characterized not so much by the conquest of paper money as by the long-drawn-out transition, extending back to the previous century, from older forms of wealth to paper. Many still thought of gold as the only real money and land as the only stable and secure form of wealth. We shall look at land in detail in the following chapter; for now I want to concentrate on the psychology of a period in which both gold and paper are the things "that chiefly strike the imagination." In the pages that follow I use "gold" in a metonymie sense, to stand for all metal currencies—gold, silver, copper—of which gold was always the most valued.

In the first place, gold and silver coins were commodities as well as a medium of exchange. They were traded, hoarded, and melted down, as Braudel points out.20 But they were money too, symbolic and material at the same time. As Michel Foucault puts it, money in the sixteenth century not only represented wealth, it was itself wealth.21 Such a view was still available to the nineteenth century, if chiefly as nostalgia. One who felt threatened by the instability of a society whose middle ranks were swelling, in which wealthy merchants with marriageable daughters were knocking on the doors of the impoverished aristocracy, might well feel inclined to regard gold as the only real form of wealth. Gold conformed to Locke's definition of money: "Some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling."22 The grammatical ambiguity here is telling: money is the way we keep from spoiling, the way we defer death indefinitely. In a well-known scene in Dombey and Son Paul asks his father, "Papa! what's money?" To the answer that money can do anything, Paul counters with the obvious question: "Why didn't money save me my mamma?" Dombey—who by now wants to escape this conversation and perhaps review his assets—acknowledges that money cannot save people whose time has come to die, but very often can keep death off for a long time altogether. Even this crumb of comfort, though, is belied by Paul's subsequent death. Indeed, it is this very scene that makes his father suspect the boy is sickly and needs special care.

Though Dombey is not exactly a miser, he is someone who hoards, who keeps things close, who refuses to spend any sympathy on his surviving child, Florence. In fact he exudes such gloom in the novel precisely because he shares the miser's closed personality without availing himself of the miser's source of comfort: poring over his piles of wealth. For misers these piles of wealth are invariably coins, usually gold. We cannot imagine a miser hoarding bills and notes; what he hoards must not perish, because it keeps him alive. Those attracted to paper are speculators and profligates. Gold is material, palpable, valuable in itself, whereas paper is an abstraction, a fiction. The point is that both gold and paper were social forces in the nine teenth century; they may have been ships passing, but the passage was slow. Indeed, for most of the century they were linked; England's money was on a gold standard, largely because of the earlier examples on the Continent of floating currencies that turned out to be (in Defoe's term) chimerical: John Law's Mississippi Company notes, and the assignats issued after the 1789 revolution. In France, too, the Bank of France, created in 1800, issued notes convertible to gold and silver, though paper money took longer to catch on in France than in England.23 Thus Balzac's novels are filled with details of bills being signed, passed back and forth, renewed, discounted, and dishonored; but when Rastignac sends for his sisters' money in Le Père Goriot, it arrives as two sacks of gold. In other words, it comes from the provinces, where paper is more suspect than in the city.

Transporting gold in such a manner seems almost anomalous—and clearly is done in Le Père Goriot only because of Rastignac's desperation—because gold tends to stay in one place, in contrast to paper, which is inclined to circulate. Gold is hoarded, paper spent, gold is stable and paper unstable, gold attracts misers and paper spendthrifts. In the nineteenth century the miser is still a recognizable literary type, but his portrayal tends to shade into that of the rich merchants and businessmen (like Dombey) who love money and business and nothing else. The attraction of money for the businessman is similar to that of gold for the miser: it insulates against change and decay, is susceptible to tidy manipulation, and centers, even immobilizes, one's life. "His money was never naughty; his money never made noise or litter, and did not spill things on the table at meal times" (Butler, The Way of All Flesh). The businessman in novels usually shares the miser's anal-retentive character, though perhaps with less manifest satisfaction.

Behind Dickens's financiers, behind the Dombeys, Merdles, and Podsnaps, lurks the shadow of the miser, who often is presented as a relic of previous centuries, like Fagin in Oliver Twist. The nineteenth-century miser, like his literary progenitors, is always old, often babbling, sometimes bordering on second childhood. Sir Pitt Crawley in Vanity Fair, Peter Featherstone in Middlemarch, Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Silas Marner, old Grandet in Eugénie Grandet, old Séchard in Illusions perdues, Gobseck in Balzac's "M. Gobseck," Rigou in Les paysans—their nostalgia for a past in which the representation of wealth and its material reality were one usually spills over into a kind of arrested infancy. Boffin, the fake miser in Our Mutual Friend, is also a kind of literary miser, and he learns about being a miser (while pretending to have his appetite for it whetted) by paying Wegg to read to him about famous misers of the past. In Silas Marner, George Eliot presents the standard picture of the miser, transparent enough in our post-Freudian age: "How the guineas shone as they came pouring out of the dark leather mouths! … He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children."24 The miser is usually a misanthrope because he cannot live in the present. He longs for the time when a hoard was a hoard, when things, and their value, never changed. Never changed means not only that they didn't decrease—the usual justification for a hoard—but that they didn't increase either, as was generally the case in the expanding economy of the nineteenth century. It was this expanding economy and all it represented—change, increase, the unknown, the future—that the nineteenth-century miser deliberately drew back from, longing for a (supposed) earlier and simpler world. For the miser money is time, and time piles up; time is what he hoards and stores, walling himself in against the future. All his desire pours into his hoard in order to harden and kill desire, so he can become, in George Eliot's phrase, "a mere pulsation of desire." Silas Marner's coins are monads, solid and weighty: the essence of material reality, primitive, inert, and immutable.

Paper money, on the other hand, is weightless and flighty—it has wings, cannot stay put. The opposite of the miser is the spendthrift, a literary type for the most part new to the nineteenth century. Mr. Sowerby in Trollope's Framley Parsonage, George Vavasor in Can You Forgive Her? Felix Carbury in The Way We Live Now, Maxime de Trailles in several of Balzac's novels and stories, the Baron Hulot in La Cousine Bette, Rosamond Lydgate in Middlemarch, Dmitri Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, Alexis in The Gambler, Becky and Rawdon Crawley in Vanity Fair—all these characters thrive out on a limb, in a world of their own fiction, spending money they don't even possess ("Borrowing is the best way of sustaining credit," says Rastignac in Balzac's La peau de chagrin). In the nineteenth century, paper money represented an explosion of money that took on the quality of a collective fantasy. Around the edges of that explosion, the spendthrift became a kind of holy fool; in The Brothers Karamazov, everyone trails behind and gathers around Dmitri as he tosses his money about. Like Dmitri, most spendthrifts are compulsive and asocial. They create an artificial conviviality by buying social energy and companionship. Often they are outcasts or misfits because they fail to understand or have turned away from the traditional male role of earning or managing money. In fact, the spendthrift in the nineteenth-century novel is often a woman—Madame Bovary, Rosamond Lydgate, Becky Crawley—for whom money isn't real. And they are right. It isn't. Money for the spendthrift is the paper image of money. As Defoe says, "Substance is answered by the Shadow…. the Name of the thing is made Equivalent to the Thing itself."25

On the other hand, paper money possesses the reality of power. It has, if nothing else, exchange value. It can't store value, like gold; its status is the very opposite of the chest of gold and silver coins Robinson Crusoe finds on the wreck and drags to his island, even though he can't spend it. The impotence of Crusoe's money is a little allegory of nascent capitalism in the early eighteenth century, just before banks and credit began to expand. Once that expansion was under way, the power of paper money swelled. We sense it expanding toward the future, swelling credit, swelling capital. This does not happen for the miser, whose desires contract, whose world shrinks. But it happens for the spendthrift, who flees the past and devours the future, who spends money in order not to have it, in order to continuously desire it. The spendthrift spends as quickly as possible to hasten the moment when he has nothing and the future takes on the character of the unknown. One doesn't become a spendthrift by having a store of money to spend. The spendthrift perpetually empties the store before it can become a store. Somehow there's always more to spend. He borrows, gambles, marries into money. His compulsive generosity is really no more generous than a miser's sense of security is secure. Only Balzac could detect an element of calculation in such compulsion. In La peau de chagrin, he has Rastignac say, "When a man spends his time squandering his fortune, he's very often onto a good thing: he is investing his capital in friends, pleasures, protectors and acquaintances…. If he has the bad luck to lose his capital, he has the good luck to be appointed tax collector, make a good marriage, become the secretary to a minister or an ambassador. He still has friends and reputation, and is never short of money."26 The last statement is true of all spendthrifts: they are never short of money. Only the miser is short of money. A few notes, a few coins are plenty for the spendthrift—they are no more real than a fortune. The only reality is the lack of money. The more money the spendthrift has, the more he spends, and the less he has. Alexis, in Dostoevsky's The Gambler, spends two hundred thousand francs in three weeks. This kind of spending can happen only with paper. Gold possesses a gravitational pull that prevents it from being tossed around. But gold is always there in the background for the spendthrift, defining by contrast the weightlessness of paper.

Indeed, in a certain respect the miser and the spendthrift are two sides of the same coin. They are linked by a historical necessity imperfectly expressed by Gresham's law, that bad money drives out good: in the nineteenth century this meant that gold was hoarded and paper spent. Maxime de Trailles says to the miser and money lender Gobseck (in Balzac's story "M. Gobseck"), "if there were no spendthrifts, what would become of you? The pair of us are like soul and body." The spendthrift Maxime deals primarily with paper—countless notes, some signed by several hands, that he discounts to obtain cash. And Gobseck deals primarily with gold; he distrusts paper, using it only as a means to get his hands on more gold. For both of them, money is not only money but the lack of money. This reciprocal play of money and its lack is contained within money, within its dual nature, and therefore embedded in nineteenth-century society.

Behind all this is a changing conception of the nature of wealth. Misers and spendthrifts are grotesques, parodies of an older and a newer conception of wealth. Etymologically, wealth comes from weal, or well-being. Before the eighteenth century and especially the nineteenth—and surviving in the latter as nostalgia—wealth was thought of as a store of value representing stability and security. In England, as we shall see, its most powerful symbol was not gold, but the landed estate. As Trollope put it in The Last Chronicle of Barset, "land is about the only thing that can't fly away." But with the Industrial Revolution and the financial revolution that helped make it possible, wealth gradually came to be thought of as something different, as an active agent, a power. This new sense of wealth meant that money was not only a medium of exchange, but a means of expansion and increase, of augmentation, amplification, multiplication. It became a way to extend one's sphere of influence over nature and society, fuel for the newly discovered voracious ego—which in fact it gave birth to. Especially in the form of paper money, wealth became volatile, unpredictable, patulous. Defoe saw this aspect of money as "meer Air and Shadow, realizing Fancies and Imaginations, Visions and Apparitions,"27 as indeed it was at times, particularly in the kinds of bubbles Dickens and Trollope portray in Little Dorrit and The Way We Live Now and to a lesser degree Butler displays in The Way of All Flesh.

For this reason, in Little Dorrit the irony of Mr. Dorrit's inheriting an estate lies in the context created by the more volatile states of wealth surrounding him—not only Merdle's financial schemes, but also the business debts that have caused Dorrit to spend so much of his life in debtor's prison. The estate is the nineteenth century's link with the past, but for Mr. Dorrit it arrives in the form of a treasure discovered under a rock, of manna from heaven (though of course it turns out to be a curse rather than a blessing). Dickens's juxtaposition of the factors that impoverished and enriched Mr. Dorrit—his business debts and later his inheritance—demonstrates the degree to which by the mid-nineteenth century the domain of the gentry and nobility (landed estates) was being invaded by the middle classes….


1 Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, vol. 1 of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, trans. Miriam Kochan and Siân Reynolds (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 511.

2 Cited in L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (New York: George W. Stewart, n.d.), p. 123.

3 See Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce, vol. 2 of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, trans. Siân Reynolds (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 479.

4 Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, trans. Miriam Kochan (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. xiii. Braudel's Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme was first published in France in 1967 and later was revised extensively by the author. The book cited here is the English translation of vol. 1 of the unrevised Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme; The Structures of Everyday Life and The Wheels of Commerce are the new English translations of volumes 1 and 2 of Braudel's revision (vol. 3 is forthcoming). I am quoting here some comments in the preface to Capitalism and Material Life that were dropped in The Structures of Everyday Life.

5 Ibid., p. x.

6 Braudel, Structures of Everyday Life, p. 372.

7 Thomas Love Peacock, Paper Money Lyrics, in The Works of Thomas Love Peacock (New York: AMS Press, 1967), p. 115.

8 Ibid.

9 Braudel, Structures of Everyday Life, pp. 452 and 472.

10 Ibid., pp. 471-472.

11 L. A. Clarkson, The Pre-Industrial Economy in England, 1500-1750 (London: B. T. Batsford, 1974), p. 146.

12 Charles Wilson, England's Apprenticeship: 1603-1763 (London: Longman, 1965), p. 208. In addition to the works cited, I have also relied for factual matters in the following pages upon several other books: by J. H. Clapham, The Bank of England: A History, 2 vols. (Cambridge: University Press, 1970); An Economic History of Modern Britain, vol. 1, The Early Railway Age (Cambridge: University Press, 1950); and The Economic Development of France and Germany, 1815-1914 (Cambridge: University Press, 1968). Also, Brian Murphy, A History of the British Economy (London: Longman, 1973), and P. G. M. Dickson, The Financial Revolution in England: A Study in the Development of Public Credit, 1688-1756 (London: Macmillan, 1967).

13 Braudel, Wheels of Commerce, p. 113.

14 Braudel, Structures of Everyday Life, p. 472.

15 Robin M. Reeve, The Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (London: University of London Press, 1971), p. 170.

16 Ibid., p. 168.

17 Braudel, Wheels of Commerce, pp. 321-325 and 385-395.

18 T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 87.

19 Reeve, Industrial Revolution, p. 167.

20 Braudel, Wheels of Commerce, pp. 194-204.

21 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), p. 169.

22 John Locke, Of Civil Government (New York: Dutton, 1924), p. 140.

23 Braudel, Structures of Everyday Life, p. 474.

24 Compare this with the description of Trina in Norris's McTeague: "Trina would play with this money by the hour, piling it and repiling it, or gathering it all into one heap and drawing back to the farthest corner of the room to note the effect, her head on one side…. Or, again, she would draw the heap lovingly toward her and bury her face in it, delighted at the smell of it and the feel of the smooth, cool metal on her cheeks. She even put the small gold pieces in her mouth and jingled them there." In Freud's scheme, excrement is aliment. These descriptions of misers find their grotesque culmination in a passage in Beckett's Malone Dies: "Yes, a little creature, I shall try and make a little creature, to hold in my arms, a little creature in my image, no matter what I say. And seeing what a poor thing I have made, or how like myself, I shall eat it."

25 Daniel Defoe, The Chimera: or, The French Way of Paying National Debts Laid Open (London: T. Warner, 1720), p. 6. This book was written by Defoe in response to John Law's experiment with paper money in France (the Mississippi Company), apparently just before the bubble burst.

26 The translation of La peau de chagrin, The Wild Ass's Skin, is by Herbert J. Hunt (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977).

27 Defoe, Chimera, pp. 5-6.

Kevin McLaughlin (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "The Financial Imp: Ethics and Finance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 29. No. 2, Winter, 1996, pp. 165-83.

[In the following essay, McLaughlin analyzes the conflict between ethics and economics, caused by the economic upheaval of the period and reflected in the literature of the period. McLaughlin focuses on outcome-based actions versus moral absolutes.]

Economic issues have never been far from British fiction. Indeed, as literary historians have often pointed out, the rise of the novel in Britain in the eighteenth century itself closely paralleled the emergence of the new science of political economy in the period.1 Similarly, during the Victorian era, while the novel reached new heights of popularity in England, political economy was the main source of philosophical debate. In British philosophy at the time the standing of political economy was quite clear: it marked the sharp separation of moral philosophy into utilitarian and anti-utilitarian schools. The critical point here was the validity of applying the methods of political economy to moral questions, and this point effectively divided moral philosophy into two schools. There were, on the one hand, those advocating the exercise of economic or financial reason in ethical deliberation—the calculation of the moral profitability of an action—and, on the other, those who held that ethics was a matter beyond calculation, the result, not of calculation, but of a human endowment or gift (an "intuition," as they said). The main currents of this debate over political economy in Victorian philosophy can also be discerned in British fiction at the time. Harriet Martineau's decision in her Illustrations of Political Economy to use fiction to bring political economy into the British mainstream (xi-xii) and Dickens's efforts two decades later in Hard Times to stem the tide of political economism are only two of the most obvious, if ultimately unsatisfying, attempts to produce narratives that would argue for one side or the other in the conflict. Some works of fiction at the time, however, rather than choosing a side in the debate, perceptively confused its entrenched positions and managed to avoid becoming bogged down in the stagnant arguments for and against political economy. Especially telling in this context, I would argue, was the reflection on the key question of finance, which can be found at the center of certain works of British fiction during the period. What follows here is an attempt to sketch an approach to this reflection on finance in Victorian fiction, first by outlining the importance of finance in the debates dominating moral philosophy at the time and then by considering this question in the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose contribution to the debate over ethics and economics in the period has yet to be appreciated.

I. Deontology

Moral philosophy has had a long preoccupation with economics. It has even been argued that Western philosophy itself was founded as a reflection on economic issues (Shell, Money 2-3; 131-37). Today, some of the most influential recent work in Anglo-American and Continental philosophy has focused on economics and ethics (one thinks of Amartya Sen and Stanley Cavell in the Anglo-American context, and Jacques Derrida in France). Moreover, not only has there been renewed interest in economics in ethical theory, but business schools in the United States and in Europe have also made ethics a required subject for their students. In France, this desire to introduce an ethical dimension into the work of the modern business professional has been expressed by a host of recent books devoted to what the French call "deontology" [déontologie].2 The word "deontology" provides us with a strange, but instructive, link between current discussions of economics and ethics and those of Victorian England. "Deontology" was invented from the Greek root meaning "duty" by Jeremy Bentham in his 1834 Deontology: Or Morality Made Easy. Nevertheless, in spite of its English origins in Bentham, French "déontologie" has very little to do with the English word "deontology" as it is currently understood.3 In English, deontology is a technical term used by philosophers to describe a particular kind of ethical theory: "a deontological theory of ethics," one reference work explains, "is one which holds that at least some acts are morally obligatory regardless of their consequences for human weal or woe … the first of the great philosophers emphatically to enunciate the deontological principle was Immanuel Kant" ("Deontological"). In contemporary English philosophy, then, "deontology" is associated, not with Bentham, but with Kant. This is noteworthy, since the names Kant and Bentham are often made to stand for two fundamentally opposed kinds of ethical theories in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy (deontological and utilitarian).

The confusion caused by the different meanings of the word "deontology" in English and in French is thus irritating for students of British philosophy because it seems to collapse the two poles of nineteenth-century ethical theory in England, consequentialism or utilitarianism, on the one hand, and anti-consequentialism or, to use the nineteenth-century term, "intuitionism," on the other (Schneewind, Backgrounds 129-42). But the confusion is not merely a matter of mistranslation. Within the British tradition itself the term "deontology" has a complex history. While deontological ethical theories are now understood to be those which consider duty as an imperative to behave in a certain way regardless of the consequences, Bentham coined the...

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