Published by EH.NET (June 2010)

Ranald C. Michie, Guilty Money: The City of London in Victorian and Edwardian Culture, 1815-1914. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009. x + 278 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-85196-892-3.

Reviewed by Leslie Hannah, Department of Economic History, London School of Economics.


Ranald Michie, Professor of History at the University of Durham, England, probably knows more about the history of stock exchanges than anyone. His 1987 study, The London and New York Stock Exchanges, 1850-1914, remains the classic source for those wishing to understand their different institutional characteristics. In this new book, however, he explores new and unfamiliar ground, admirably summarized in his preface: ?Though its theme is the City of London as a financial and commercial centre, it is not a factual account. Though it relies heavily on novels it is not an exercise in literary criticism. Though it attempts to identify ideas and images it is not a cultural history. The fact that it does not fit into any obvious category may explain why referees for journals and publishers found it easy to be critical rather than to understand what I was trying to achieve. This book sets out to test one simple theory and that is whether it is possible to establish, with any degree of precision, the place occupied by a financial centre in the culture of a nation, and the degree to which that changed over time.?

We may already know that financiers played a large part in the nineteenth century novel from our reading of Mansfield Park, Little Dorrit or Howard?s End (or at least remember the television adaptations on the BBC or public television). We may even have encountered the playwright Israel Zangwill in melting pot contexts, if not through his less well known Cheating the Gallows, but Michie has intrepidly delved deeper into the century?s literary output to uncover novelists that few of us will have even heard of. He appears to have read every bad novel and mediocre play and viewed every painting that touches on the life of the City. Of course, many of these were more popular at the time than the surviving classics and arguably give us a clearer window on the everyday dialogues and immediate discontents of a lost world of contemporary public opinion. Fear not, however: you are guided gently by the author though the relevant plots and dialogues, as he expertly and relentlessly assesses their significance, so you will not have to read them yourself.

His thesis is that, in a period of rapid change for both the economy and cultural attitudes, we can chart their interactions with some chronological precision by using such sources. There is no hint here of the pervasive and unchanging simplicities of Martin Wiener?s British business culture, but rather an insistence that attitudes were contingent on events and their construction, with considerable leeway for prejudices and presentations to shift and evolve. For example, the negative view of finance and speculation in some early representations tended by 1895 to be reserved for some of the darker company promoters. City folk were then generally being portrayed as hard-working, effective and honorable contributors to Britain?s economic success. However, the two decades before 1914 saw a more negative portrayal again coming to the fore. Driven first by the ?Kaffir circus? gold speculation of the late 1890s, there was an unpleasant emphasis on Jews and foreigners as a source not of the City?s international success but of dubious and underhanded practices. The rise of socialism also added a new element of negativity in the portrayal of the capitalist. Manufacturing was increasingly portrayed in positive terms while finance evoked deep-seated prejudices against money and speculation, as the unacceptable face of capitalism.

The book can be recommended to anyone seeking to understand shifts in popular attitudes toward finance and the strengths and limits of using literary evidence for this purpose. It makes no large claims to broader significance, for example, as an explanation of the financial repression which was such a marked feature of the post-1914 UK economy until the 1980s. The author can be pronounced successful in the unusual, challenging, and carefully limited, task that he set himself.


Leslie Hannah is Visiting Professor, Economic History Department, London School of Economics and is currently working on an international comparison of stock exchanges before 1914.