Literature from the long nineteenth century abounds in acts of fraud and forgery, whose far-reaching implications captured the popular imagination during this period of rapid economic development and offered a means of engaging with the unstable realities of a burgeoning capitalist and industrial era. Sara Malton points out that forgery ‘enacts a violation on several fronts: it signifies a transgression against property, identity, the authority of law, the nation-state, and the economic system’. Acts of fraud and forgery are more than simply crimes of mendacity; they destabilise and jeopardise the intertwined systems upon which society is founded. Writers and readers were simultaneously alarmed and fascinated by such acts, which became elemental to new plots but also raised unsettling questions about origins, authority, and the nature of wealth and merit.
Acts of textual forgery frustrate the continuity between text and truth, signifier and signified, with the popularity of object or ‘it-narratives’ complicating these dichotomies even further, and the deployment of pseudonyms by authors problematising the question of authority and the fluid transmission of texts. Authors of this period also implicated the body in acts of forgery, with disguise and false identity common themes in nineteenth-century sensation fiction and often linked with acts of monetary falseness. Novelistic realism, and its strange claim on reality, is intimately entangled with the vocabulary of counterfeiting: plausible worlds minted on the flat ontology of words. Many financial protagonists in Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, and Zola combine financial success with loose dealings in disguises and words, and become symbols of economic categories in turmoil. Before this, romantic poetry participated in debates about bullion and the gold standard, absorbing it into larger discussions of language, nature and truth, and speculative economies – often thinly veiled frauds themselves – further contributed to the nebulous nature of ‘paper wealth’ during the period. Romantic fraud and forgery also surface, with bigamy and false vows appearing in popular texts such as Jane Eyre and Jude the Obscure.