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The Bank Nun’s Tale: Financial Forgery, Gothic Imagery, and Economic Power

Rebecca Nesvet (University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, USA)

Abstract


A Victorian urban legend maintains that ‘Miss Whitehead, the Bank Nun’, a black–clothed woman in a nun–like headdress, frequently visited the Bank of England to protest her brother’s 1812 execution for financial forgery. Well–known by 1880, the story is largely neglected by modern scholarship on the depiction of forgery. I reveal that the Bank Nun is a Victorian literary invention, the product of a series of texts that enlist Gothic imagery to debate financial forgery’s impact, prosecution, and punishment and the economic empowerment of women and working–class people. The character’s development begins with the sketch collection Streetology of London, or the Metropolitan Papers of the Itinerant Club (1837), which vilifies financial forgery by transforming the historical Miss Whitehead into ‘the Bank Nun’, an update of the venal nun of Gothic literature. Contesting this narrative, ‘Sweeney Todd’ creator James Malcolm Rymer’s penny novel The Lady in Black, or, the Widow and the Wife (1847–8) reinvents the Bank Nun as a Gothic heroine whose ordeal demonstrates that forgery prosecution oppresses the productive classes. These angelic and demonic instantiations of the Bank Nun proliferated throughout the Victorian era, generating an enduring myth.

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