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‘I am born’: Writing Corporate Personhood in Victorian It-narratives

Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen (Aarhus University, Denmark)

Abstract


The following article analyses two literary texts that emerged from the public discussion of joint stock companies and corporate personhood in Victorian Britain. The Company Acts of 1844, 1855-56 and 1862 gradually made the privileges of incorporation available to the public, thereby ending a period characterised by a strict attitude towards corporate finance. A heated discussion ensued which pitted notions of character and credit associated with traditional partnership businesses against the more aggressive business strategies associated with joint stock companies. Literary texts were anything but silent in this discussion. Victorian novels, for example, drew heavily on plots and characters hewn from the emerging financial sector, but other, more experimental fictions of the corporation also emerged in the turbulent decades following the Limited Liability Acts of midcentury. Edward P. Rowsell’s 1861 corporate novella, The Autobiography of a Joint-Stock Company, and Laurence Oliphant’s similarly titled periodical essay, ‘Autobiography of a Joint-Stock Company (Limited)’ from 1876, are thus more than just fictional autobiographies; they are literary experiments with the form and function of joint stock companies. Drawing heavily on precedents set in the genre of it-narratives, these texts offer dramatisations of what was uniquely fascinating and problematic about the joint stock company and the concept of corporate personhood.

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