How to win, lose and use money in a novel way

January 3, 2014 4:40 pm

How to win, lose and use money in a novel way

By John Sutherland

Golden-age writers offer enduring insights on unfairness, writes John Sutherland

Money – and the unfairness of its distribution – is much on our minds at the moment. Particularly, it boils the minds of the “sod politics” generation of those aged 20 to 30– the pinched generation, as David Willetts, the universities minister, has called it.It is not the first place they would look (the cogitations of comedian Russell Brand would probably be top of the list) but they could, I think, pick up some useful insights by reading fiction of the 19th century – the golden age of the novel. Behind every great fortune, declared Honoré de Balzac, lies a crime – a grim view of humanity that he depicted, at monumental length, in his Comédie Humaineseries. Russian novelists of the 19th century had a different view on money and its unfair distribution through the world. That view is articulated in Fyodor Dostoevsky’sThe Gambler. If God loves you, he will make you rich. End of problem.

British fiction of the golden age (as I have called it) has what I think is an unusually sensible debate about money. The first thing to realise about the Victorians is that their young adults, like ours, were mostly skint. What “pinched” young Victorians most painfully was not that they could not buy houses but that they could not buy respectable sex. Alfred Tennyson, for example, even after he had made his name as the new John Keats, could not afford to marry the woman he loved until he was 40. The “long engagement” and “spinsterhood” was the chronically frustrating condition of the Victorian twentysomethings.

Gerontocracy takes different forms. Anthony Trollope’s last novel, An Old Man’s Love, centres on the fact that the old man can snaffle a young beauty from the one she loves of her own age because of generational wallet-power. Houses were not that big a deal in the 19th century – everyone died younger, making supply less of a problem. The “old man” is in his fifties. Trollope himself died in his sixties.

Two 19th-century novelists have won the ultimate star billing – their face on a £10 note: Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, the latter the result of Caroline Criado-Perez’s plucky campaign to ensure a woman was honoured on a banknote. But, to be honest, I would have preferred George Eliot. Of all the century’s great novelists, she had the shrewdest sense of the place of money in our lives. And Austen? It is not her strong point.

Eliot’s most trenchant parable on money is Silas Marner. Marner is a miser who keeps the golden guineas he earns by his honest labour under his floorboards. Every night he takes them out and counts them – it is as intense as making love. But, as he painfully learns, it is fool’s gold. “Worth” is not to be measured by the contents of his money bags, but in what he does in the greater world. “You are not your bank balance,” every ATM should tell us.

This – thought-for-the-dayish as it seems – is the universal “moral” in Victorian fiction. The world is your oyster is the motto of all Disraeli’s Young England novels, in which he outlined a new Conservatism and its core “One Nation” thesis – but do not expect a silver spoon to come with it, young man. Eliot was an unusual thing for her time: a self-made rich woman. Not for her Dickens’ “great expectations”: wealth that cascades down the generations. Nor did she marry into money. Like Marner, she earned every guinea. She was the first British novelist to be offered an advance of £10,000 – about £6m in our money (ironically for Romola, the Eliot novel no one reads). Heroes and heroines do inherit money in Eliot’s fiction but it is never, in itself, a central thing. If you have more money than you need it is something to use – as Dorothea in Middlemarch uses the wealth she inherits in her early twenties to make a better world.

It was entirely appropriate for Dickens to be pictured on our most handled banknote. He, like Eliot, was entirely self-made. His great wealth (he died leaving over £100,000) was earned from novels in which he pondered deeply and instructively about what money meant and what should be done with it. In Dombey and Son, the soon-to-die Paul asks his father, in his sweet way: “Papa, what’s money?” Dombey, who has made a fortune by “Wholesale, Retail, and Exportation” is wholly nonplussed. The child dies, Dombey is bankrupted, and he discovers the answer to his son’s question: money is what he wasted his life piling up.

There is no Dickens novel whose plot does not hinge on the acquisition and loss of money, how it is best used, and ultimately how there are more important things in life. Seeing his face on the banknote always called back to me an echo of little Paul’s question.

Austen, I’m less sure about. She never paid her way in life and never had to worry about where the next £10 was coming from. She was quite happy, as with Northanger Abbey, to sell a novel for just that paltry sum: £10. What does the mega-rich Darcy do in life? Nothing. More to the point, where do his mega-riches come from? As far as the novel is concerned, nowhere. They are just there. In his recent bestseller, What Matters in Jane Austen, John Mullan estimates that a person needs £20,000 (£1m in our money) to live in the style of Austen’s heroes and heroines. Unearned, of course. No taint of “trade” or even “work” must attach to that 20 grand. There are clergymen such as Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey). But the real work of Tilney’s rich “living” – while he is dancing, dining and wooing Catherine Morland at Bath – is done by an underpaid curate (as, one guesses, was the case with Austen’s clergyman father and his curate). In Persuasion, Frederick Wentworth made a fortune from the French ships he captured. But having made his pile and married his Anne, he intends, we guess, to just live in the required idle style on his capital: a goodly £20,000 plus.

So, yes, revere Austen for her literary worth. But her proper place is not on a grubby £10 note.

I, like Father William in Alice in Wonderland, am old – past the age at which one is sent a free bus pass and even, god help me, into free TV licence territory. If I had one message for the pinched youngsters, it would be to remember it was ever so. Just be glad you are alive and, as Eliot put it, you have your 35 years ahead of you, not behind you.

The writer, an emeritus professor at University College London, is author of ‘A Little History of Literature’


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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