Victorian Literature and Finance

I’ve always been fascinated by the world of women described in British literature as assured of a certain income a year, interest on their capital, that famous £500 a year that Virginia Woolf claimed (as she was given by her aunt’s legacy) you needed for a room of one’s own. Even today I bumped up against this idea as I trundled slowly through George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda where she pokes fun at the young men who wonder if it’s worth participating in the battle for work, clarifying that she means, “of course, the young men in whom the unproductive labour of questioning is sustained by three or five per cent on capital which somebody else has battled for.”

The highlight of this collection of essays is Nancy Henry’s ‘Ladies do it?’: Victorian Women Investors in Fact and Fiction. She points out the independence that women gained by being able to participate in varying levels of investment and speculation, naming the Brontës and Elizabeth Gaskell among those writers who expanded their earnings from the pen by shrewd investment. Also, “few critics of the market were willing to address their own dependence on it…” in the case of Dickens, Zola, Maupassant, and Karl Marx. She recounts a letter Marx wrote to his uncle in 1864 after inheriting money that he’d been “speculating—partly in American funds, but more especially in English stocks”: “It’s a type of operating that makes small demands on one’s time, and it’s worth while running some risk in order to relieve the enemy of his money.”

It is here that I discover the source I’ve been looking for. “Beginning in 1749, ‘the consols’, or ‘the funds’, paid a fixed rate of 3 per cent annual interest (thus known as ‘the three per cents’). The Three Per Cent Consols are referenced in a wide variety of books from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to Trollope to Jane Austen. Henry mentions “throughout the nineteenth century, many women survived on the income of money safely invested in the Funds.”

Great detail behind “the funds” here.