In Charles Reade's underread sensation novel Hard Cash (1863), the hero is imprisoned in an insane asylum so that his father's fiscal crimes may remain concealed. The exposé of asylum abuse that follows this development, together with Reade's fierce critique of how committal laws may be exploited by unscrupulous others, has understandably foregrounded the lunacy plot as the novel's defining feature. This essay, however, presents an economic reading that examines how the lunacy thread extends from the title Hard Cash, which announces the novel's theme. The Cash in question is a coveted and surprisingly mobile sum of money, £14,000, whose nominal amount and vicissitudes reflect aspects of the larger Victorian economy. It is the “one point” toward which action and interests converge. Hard Cash captures a structure of feeling at mid-century, a sense of what it feels like to be an economic man, rendering modern consciousness in melodramatic and sensational modes. By literalizing idioms of anxiety and assaulting male characters with relentless reversals of fortune, Reade dramatizes how economic pressures shape the hero's psychology, behavior, and conception of heroic manliness, fashioning him into a modern subject suited to the commercial age. The examples of madness in Hard Cash extend far beyond the hero's case, and are rooted in financial realities that include unreliable monetary instruments, panic-stricken markets, speculative fevers, and perennial debates about risk, credit, and the nature of money.

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