Financial Revolution: Representing British Financial Crisis after the French Revolution of 1848


Punch's Mr. Dunup is indeed in an awful position. Having fled to France to escape his English creditors, he finds himself in the midst of the French Revolution of 1848. The question that he must answer – what is worse, revolution in France or bankruptcy in England? – is one that preoccupied Victorians at midcentury, when a wave of European revolutions coincided with the domestic financial crisis of 1845–48. In classic accounts of nineteenth-century Europe, 1848 is remembered as the year when a crucial contest was waged between political revolution, identified with the Continent, and capitalism, identified with Britain. According to Eric Hobsbawm, the failure of the 1848 revolutions to effect lasting political change ushered in "[t]he sudden, vast and apparently boundless expansion of the world capitalist economy": "Political revolution retreated, industrial revolution advanced" (2). For mid-nineteenth-century Britons, however, the triumph of capitalism was by no means assured. In what follows, I look closely at how Victorian journalists and novelists imagined the British financial crisis of the 1840s after this event was given new meaning by the 1848 French Revolution. Much of this writing envisions political revolution and the capitalist economy in the same way as the Punch satirist does – not as competing ideologies of social progress but as equivalent forms of social disruption. As we will see, at midcentury, the ongoing financial crisis was routinely represented as a quasi-revolutionary upheaval: it was a mass disturbance that struck terror into the middle classes precisely by suddenly and violently toppling the nation's leading men and social institutions.



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Victorian Literature and Culture