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Romanticism, Forgery and the Credit Crisis


Nick Groom
University of Exeter


1.        Forgery studies have developed rapidly in the past few years. No longer confined to “fakelit”—the “original” literary forgeries of Chatterton, the controversies surrounding Macpherson’s Ossian and W. H. Ireland’s Shakespeare, and the cultural hoaxes of eighteenth-century antiquarianism—forgery has moved into such areas as the law and character impersonation. The current work of Lionel Bently, as well as that of Simon Stern, is, for example, scrutinizing notions of copying within the legal frameworks of intellectual property and copyright legislation in the eighteenth century, a field tackled in a different way by Richard Terry’s recent book on literary accusations of plagiarism. Jack Lynch, meanwhile, has approached the subject from the opposite perspective, focusing on the practice of detection. In contrast, Margaret Russett, Debbie Lee, and others have focused attention on the proliferation of impostors and fraudsters in the Romantic period.

2.        The activities of these variously fraudulent writers and performers—these “texts”—may have been hinted at in earlier work on forgery, but it is most heartening to see it is now bearing rich fruit. And the papers collected here reveal that, influenced in part by the work of Mary Poovey and Margot Finn, another, significant area of forgery studies is emerging in literary finance and forgery. These four essays all, in very different ways, examine the implications that the anxieties and politics surrounding financial fraud had in the early part of the nineteenth century.

3.        It is notable that this work concentrates on the first two decades of the century. As Ian Haywood argues, the Bank Restriction Act, which released the Bank of England from issuing metal currency in exchange for paper banknotes, precipitated a credit crisis that exposed “Britain’s system of paper money as tantamount to a form of legalized counterfeiting”, with the result that the entire political system risked becoming effectively a “fraud.” Restriction undermined the system of credit, but it also led to a huge increase in the number of executions for forgery. As Phil Handler puts it, these trials and hangings “provided a stark public reminder of the evils of the paper system and the unreliability of Bank of England notes.” They also galvanized opposition to the government’s financial controls. As Alex Benchimol points out, radical publications such as Black Dwarf campaigned against forgery prosecutions. Haywood’s interest here is in investigating the imaginative implications of counterfeit banknotes, a fascinating link that could connect the whole project of Romanticism with the credit crisis. Specifically in this essay, he examines the figure and work of the engraver, demonstrating that “Romantic-period anxieties about authenticity and value achieved a spectacular visual form in the ‘formidable’ power of the caricaturist.”

4.        There is perhaps a striking parallel for today’s readers to jokes made about the recent Bank of England’s policy of “quantitative easing”, which has been compared with counterfeiting—and also caricatured.  [1]  But the historical context is also compelling. Things had been very different in the early eighteenth-century. As Thomas Levenson has shown, Sir Isaac Newton’s innovations at the Royal Mint were designed to maintain the integrity of the physical fact of the coin. It was Newton who pioneered the use of milled edges to coins and the motto, “decus et tutamen” (“an ornament and a safeguard”) to ensure that coins could not be clipped (it is also worth noting that he attended the executions of coiners who fell foul of his minting techniques). But over the course of the century the prevalence of paper money eventually created a profoundly different economic environment. Paper was not bullion—it had no inherent value. There were not even objective criteria for determining what constituted an authentic note, and attempts to create a forgery-proof banknote were a constant reminder of the threat of counterfeit bills. Moreover, the persistent slippage between literary and financial forgery (a slippage over the period that has been examined in detail by Paul Baines) meant that the rhetoric of the economy was laced with the terminology of fiction. No wonder it provided abundant raw materials for caricature.

5.        The credit crisis (with its attendant language of forgery) also pervaded the politics of the time. Benchimol himself considers the production, representation, and circulation of radical knowledge to show that there was an explicit radical campaign against the system of paper money. William Cobbett energetically exposed the mystifications of the financial system, which, he argued, was spectral: it had no bodily existence and paper money had merely imaginary value. The system was, according to Cobbett, “profoundly immoral, unjust, and constructed upon an unsustainable foundation of monetary abstractions.” His response was to outline a mass campaign of active resistance. Cobbett argued that it was the act of uttering (that is, passing as legal tender) forged paper bills that brought the charge of forgery and led to the gallows; he therefore attacked the circulation of paper money by proposing that forged notes be cast about in the streets for anyone to pick up, unuttered.

6.        This shift in forgery studies towards legal property and financial forgery also offers opportunities to reconsider authenticity. In legal and financial areas the definitions of forgery and counterfeit are conflated and wholly entangled, and this informs recent work by Robert Hopkins, who argues that aesthetic meanings of forgery should be governed by establishing artistic intentions, in essence mimicking the legal definition of the crime of forgery. Yet it is clear that the distinction between forgery as an “original” composition attributed to another, and counterfeit as an exact copy of a pre-existent work remains a valuable distinction—if only in aesthetics.

7.        In one of two essays of literary criticism here, Robert Miles pursues the relationship between aesthetics and economics by usefully arguing that forgery is a “hinge” linking the two systems. Focusing on Jane Austen’s Emma, he discovers that the “social imaginary” of the novel is wholly underpinned by economic values: in particular, the endeavours to “realise” cash by turning it into land and hence political influence. The internalization of such values, brought about by the credit crisis and resulting boom-and-bust economy, generates the conditions for the understanding of value and its circulation throughout the text: Miles argues that Austen “through her economic interests … finds a language for exploring a world where value is inescapably contingent.”

8.        Miles’s earlier work on impostors encourages Alex Dick to analyse the figure of the Byronic rogue Sir Gregor MacGregor as an impostor or fraudster inspired in part by Walter Scott’s Waverley. Scott’s money troubles literally underwrote his work and obliged him to mortgage his future writing—consequently readers should be on the alert whenever Scott describes the economy. Dick argues that in Scotland, financial speculation was presented as the solution to the problem of economic diversification, which neatly explains Scott’s tendency in his fiction to present speculative economies as failing economies. Dick’s work is also an important reminder that Scotland retained some degree of economic autonomy compared with the rest of Great Britain (as it does to this day)—an archipelagic perspective that enables Scott’s fiction to become an “instrument of comparison” between different cultures.

9.        These four essays therefore indicate some of the directions that this field may take. There will be others: more work is needed for example on the Gold Standard and the national debt (Haywood reveals that by 1821 it was 2.7 times the national income), and it would be good to see legal historians, economic historians, and literary historians work together to trace, for example, counterfeiting, plagiarism, and the emergence of copyright through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. In the meantime, these studies afford a new opportunity to reassess literary finance and forgery in the period.



See Michael S. Rozeff, “Quantitative Easing Aka Counterfeiting Money”.

As an example of the sort of jokes that have circulated on the internet, this comic parable derives from, but is apparently much older than the current crisis:

It’s a slow day in a little Scottish town. The sun is beating down, and the streets are deserted. Times are tough, everybody is in debt, and everybody lives on credit. On this particular day a rich tourist from down south is driving through town. He stops at the motel and lays a £50 note on the desk saying he wants to inspect the rooms upstairs in order to pick one to spend the night.

As soon as the man walks upstairs, the owner grabs the note and runs next door to pay his debt to the butcher.

The butcher takes the £50 and runs down the street to repay his debt to the pig farmer.

The pig farmer takes the £50 and heads off to pay his bill at the supplier of feed and fuel.

The guy at the Farmer’s Co-op takes the £50 and runs to pay his debt to the local prostitute, who has also been facing hard times and has had to offer her “services” on credit.

The hooker rushes to the hotel and pays off her room bill with the hotel owner.

The hotel proprietor then places the £50 back on the counter so the rich traveller will not suspect anything.

At that moment the traveller comes down the stairs, picks up the £50 note, states that the rooms are not satisfactory, pockets the money, and leaves town.

No one produced anything. No one earned anything.

However, the whole town is now out of debt and now looks to the future with a lot more optimism.


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Published @ RC

February 2012