BOOK REVIEW: WOMEN WERE ACTIVE IN BUSINESS AND FINANCE IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN

Updated 41 weeks ago by Rene A. Henry

More than 150 years before the women’s movement in the U.S, women were breadwinners in Great Britain and active in business, finance and investments and taking care not only of their families but sometimes relatives as well.

In her new book, “Women, Literature and Finance in Victorian Britain,” Dr. Nancy Henry details how many women novelists, who also were investors, incorporated their life experiences in their fiction. “The book is about economic history in the 19th Century placing women at the center of a narrative of capitalist development that has traditionally kept them on the margins,” she said. “Fiction actually tracks the presence of real women investors and their roles in business and finance.”

Dr. Henry writes that during this era women played a central role in local, national and global economies because of how they invested their capital. Both real and fictional female investors were familiar to the Victorian British and widely represented in realist fiction. One of the most common investments for Victorian women was the government’s Three Percent Consolidated Annuities, also known as the Consols, the funds, and the three percents. Women held a significant proportion of these holdings rising form 34.7% in 1810 to 47.2% in 1840.

Women also invested in plantations in India and the West Indies as well as shipping docks being built for international trade. By 1906 investors were turning to motorcar factories and plantations that supplied rubber for automobile tires. “The accepted presence of investing women in novels at the end of the Victorian period aligns with their increasing numbers in reality,” Dr. Henry writes. “Novels of the 1880s and 1890s feature women investors as a matter of course.”

Her book cites that mid-and-late-Victorian fiction is preoccupied with money generally. Financial plots became pervasive as the financial lives of Victorians became more complicated. Dr. Henry details examples of the many types of investments women made in Victorian England with excerpts from a score of women novelists and especially George Eliot, Margaret Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Riddell.

In recent years U.S. activist groups and shareholders have pressured public companies to divest investments in companies and countries for political reasons, the environment, global warming, sources of energy, apartheid, and other issues. Novelist George Eliot wrote about socially conscious investments in the Victorian era such as the controversial St. Katherine Docks in London in 1820 that displaced 11,300 residents and defiled an historic graveyard. She wrote that developers and investors saw it has a highly profitable investment in a project of modern engineering and commercial progress while historians and critics called the docks a “needless, wanton act of barbarity and greediest

and most ruthless and silliest of them all.” Similar ethical issues involved boycotting commodities made with slave labor such as sugar and rum from the West Indies

According to Dr. Henry, Eliot also explored the ethics of inherited and investment wealth and the problem of receiving money that may have been tainted by its past means of accumulations or associations with past dubious behavior whether illegal or immoral. She writes that British fortunes were made investing in West Indian sugar plantations and women were compensated for their loss of income when slavery was abolished in 1883.

Her book cites the Victorian era’s most significant financial legislation pertaining to limited liability, bankruptcy and married women’s property. Some women authors wrote their opinions of such legislation into fiction in the form of narrative asides and pronouncements. Some even referred to actual situations to provoke readers to action.

Dr. Henry writes that Margaret Oliphant novels were characterized by financial plots that involved not only the stories of wills and inheritance – so ubiquitous in Victorian fictions – but also banking, limited liability, trusts, insurance, investment and speculations. The book says that often writers’ literary earnings would be consumed by their husband’s business during their marriage.

I would love to see her write a sequel now comparing Victorian women investors with their counterparts today.

Dr. Henry is the Nancy Goslee Professor of English at the University of Tennessee and the author of a number of books on literature and culture in Victorian Britain. “Women, Literature and Finance in Victorian Britain” [Palgrave MacMillan, © 2018, 248 pages, ISBN 978-3-319-94331] is available from Amazon for $89.99 in hardcover and $69.99 as an eBook.

Rene A. Henry has authored 10 books on a variety of subjects and many of his widely-published articles are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com. Dr. Nancy Henry is his cousin.

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