The Forged and the Authentic in Nineteenth-Century Culture

English 4555 – Honours Seminar

The Forged and the Authentic in Nineteenth-Century Culture


The representation of forgery in nineteenth-century British literature serves s an important register of contemporary contests of legal and moral authority. The recurrence of forgery in the nineteenth-century novel both illustrates the prevalence of the crime and points to broader unease about the increasing dominance of what Carlyle termed the “cash nexus”: the proliferation of pecuniary fraud, speculation, and economic crises in the mid-century created a widespread sense of economic vulnerability. This course will investigate the extent to which the representation of forgery manifests this sense of vulnerability as well as anxieties about other forms of perceived social disruption.

We will therefore consider the implications of forgery’s recurring association with other forms of “spurious production,” such as illegitimacy or feigned identity, both within nineteenth-century literature and without. By way of introduction we will address the pertinent legal and economic contexts, beginning with the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, especially focusing on the treatment of forgery as a capital crime.  We will then focus on a series of novels and shorter works, considering the representative manifestations of forgery as both literal crime and metaphor for moral and genealogical disruption. We will thus examine how the nineteenth-century literary treatment of forgery responds to cultural discourse that employs analogous assumptions about the “legitimate” and the “genuine” as measures of economic and moral integrity.


Wilkie Collins              The Woman in White (1861)

Charles Dickens         Great Expectations (1861)

Elizabeth Gaskell       Ruth (1853)

R.L. Stevenson          The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

Oscar Wilde                The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Mary Poovey, ed.     The Financial System in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2003)

Primary texts are accompanied by a required course pack of secondary contextual and theoretical readings.



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