English and American Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Chair and Committee
William R McKelvy
The nineteenth century was a period of great change in the way that money was made, exchanged, and experienced in Britain, especially as wealth became measured increasingly by capital, and a system of banking and credit developed. As Mary Poovey has explained, Victorian writing's preoccupation with money and personal wealth, and its frequent depiction of financial crises, can be seen as an effort to understand the underlying principles of the confusing yet vital financial world that was taking shape. One flourishing financial institution which received much attention in Parliament, the press, and literature was the pawn shop, perhaps because it encapsulated, in a local and visible way, some of the basic issues at stake in Victorian finance. Deemed indispensable yet sinful, pawnbroking was at the center of a moral and financial argument that continued long after the landmark Pawnbrokers' Act of 1872.
Little has been written about the pawn shop's history, particularly its Victorian expansion. A handful of historians have attempted to record the story of how Victorian pawn shops were operated, regulated, and used, but they hardly mention the pawn shop's frequent appearance in the day's fiction, and literary scholars have not engaged with pawnbroking in a thorough manner. Scholars have focused on the sentimental idea of "redemption" in pawnbroking stories, or lumped the trade together with secondhand sales; neither perspective takes into account the unique aspects of pawnbroking that make it a more complicated business than buying and selling. The amount of critical attention the Victorians paid to pawnbroking demonstrates that it was, for them, a distinctive and puzzling trade, and it is important for literary scholars to understand how its practices, adapted in fiction, served to represent new social realties and problems. This dissertation demonstrates how the pawn shop, with its hodgepodge collections of pledges, customers, and motivations, and the pledge contract, shaped by contingency and trust, allowed the Victorian novelist to explore not only attitudes toward money and commodities, but also social prejudices, personal identity, and individual value in the new economy.
The first chapter considers Dickens's descriptions of the trade, which emphasize variety - of pawn shops, patrons, and pledges - and the fluidity of the patrons' social positions. I argue that in Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Our Mutual Friend, Dickens establishes a pattern of associating pawn shops, places where material articles change from personal property to public commodities and back again, with periods of personal transition and identity transformation. The legal need for the pledger's identification, along with the careful evaluation of the pledged article to assure its authenticity and value, highlight how the frequent pledger in fiction is often someone who is not what he seems, a figure who captures the Victorians' growing interest in personal character and its relationship to economic status.
My second chapter, on Barry Lyndon, Vanity Fair, and The Virginians, shows how Thackeray also associates pawnbroking with characters in social transition, adjusting their values and identities, like pledges, for mercenary ends. Frequent but furtive pledgers and social climbers Barry Lyndon, Becky Sharp, and Harry Warrington obscure their embarrassing origins and disadvantages, but their dreams of eminence fail when a literal bad pledge or the figurative "pawning" of their moral values for financial gain reveals to others the full extent of their lies. In the affected propriety and shifting fortunes of his ambitious characters, Thackeray evokes the distorted value system that pawnbroking represented to many Victorians, allowing it to dwell uncomfortably close to respectability.
The third chapter examines how pledging, characterized by contingency and only partial commitment, becomes a model for relationships in Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, The Eustace Diamonds, and The Way We Live Now. Various characters are explicitly assigned monetary values, either for their personal wealth or their power of attracting it, and are exploited multiple times as "pawns" for another character's gain, reused and revalued as conditions change. Fittingly, the primary male-female relationship in these novels is not marriage, but prolonged, often broken, engagements, where wealth is the main obstacle to union. In evoking pawnbroking in his marriage plots, Trollope elevates the sense of exploitation in mercenary marriages, demonstrating the potential for long and repeated abuse of "valuable" individuals.
Chapter four turns to George Eliot's Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, in which the pawn shop, where goods are received, identified, and evaluated, becomes a site for the exploration of unknown or hidden aspects of identity. I focus particular attention on the pawn shop's importance to the novels' discussion of vocation. In Middlemarch, "Uncle" Bulstrode's dishonest pawnbroking and oppressive philanthropy are all the more offensive for clashing with a calling to ministry, and in Daniel Deronda, Eliot's revisions of pawnbroking language linked to Gwendolen's lost necklace in the novel's third edition assists in her expression of the importance of self-redemption through vocational discernment, which Daniel experiences in the Cohens' pawn shop and encourages Gwendolen to seek for herself.
In the fifth chapter, I argue that the pawn shop's presence in George Gissing's The Nether World and New Grub Street and George Moore's Esther Waters modifies the novels' representation of the force of environment on individual destiny. Frequent pledging in these novels is not an inescapable cycle of exploitation; rather, the pawn shop, in which private values and attachments collide with "public" judgments of market value, conveys the individual's ongoing struggle to assert him or herself as not merely economically productive, but also personally significant and valuable. The practice of pawnbroking in these novels captures the simultaneous expression of these competing value systems, and the uncertainty of which will ultimately come to define a character's existence.
My conclusion highlights Fergus Hume's lesser-known novel Hagar of the Pawn-Shop, which draws upon earlier variations of fictional pawnbroking, depicting a young Romany woman managing a pawn shop and solving mysteries while awaiting the return of a suitor. With each chapter relating Hagar's investigation of an unusual customer and pledge, which come from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds, the novel celebrates the eclectic nature of pawnbroking and challenges assumptions about personal and literary value. Recent literary scholarship has shown a growing interest the seedy side of Victorian finance, examining topics like speculation, gambling, and counterfeiting in literature. My research draws attention to another "disreputable" financial practice, disavowed but more familiar to the everyday experience of many Victorians than the stock market or gambling halls, and more complicated in its patrons' motivations. Pawnbroking and its fictional representations expose the intersections between broad economic and social forces and private experience, especially how individuals are composed of an array of values and identities that may be drawn out or obscured as needs and situations change. Like old pledges, we are always capable of another transformation.
Becker, Jennifer Tate, "Round the Corner: Pawnbroking in the Victorian Novel" (2014). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 1286.