Economics

Dickens Is Back. Watch Your Wallet.

If you want to understand the economy, don't turn to the author of Oliver Twist for answers.

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How can Charles Dickens come back if he never went away?

Acolytes of the Victorian novelist have recently arisen to champion his rescue from imaginary obscurity. In a masterful false-consensus lead, an April Los Angeles Times story smacks Dickens' critics, including Oscar Wilde, The Wire co-creator David Simon, and Holden Caulfield, then reveals that Dickens—currently enjoying a miniseries boom that includes Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop—is this year's Jane Austen. The London Times claims, "America is again in the grip of 'Dickens-mania.' " The Boston Globe says Dickens "is hotter than ever."

Dickens, we're told, is not just newly popular but newly relevant. A Washington Post puff piece on the PBS program Masterpiece's adaptation of Little Dorrit declares that a plot line involving an investment swindle is "eerily similar to the situation of those duped by disgraced financier Bernard L. Madoff." Masterpiece Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton intones, "We are eternally distracted by money," whose "corrosive power" Dickens well understood. Screenwriter Andrew Davies, a tireless exhumer of 19th century Brit Lit, opines that Dickens didn't believe in "using money to make money." "Mr. Dickens is reading our mail," writes a columnist for the Culpeper, Virginia, Star-Exponent—referring, confusingly, to A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens' riff on Thomas Carlyle's riff on the French Revolution. The tea party movement must be bigger than I thought.

With Dan Simmons' variation on Dickens' unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood in bookstores and a recent Broadway version of Tale, the "Dickens Is Back" stories write themselves. There's just one problem: This revival has been going on forever. Long before either bubble or bust, the DVD remainder bins were stuffed with old and new Nicholas Nicklebys, Oliver Twists, David Copperfields, and Great Expectationses. Clogged with talents as varied as David Lean, Roman Polanski, and Daniel Radcliffe, the trail of Dickens adaptations stretches as far into the past as memory goes.

And the future? Only the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come can see that, and lucky for us, A Christmas Carol—Dickens' most durable franchise, although it gets little mention in recent news coverage—has been produced for the big screen thrice in the last twelvemonth: as an upcoming Jim Carrey vehicle, as a chick flick (Ghost of Girlfriends Past), and as a neoconservative farce that may well be the worst picture ever released (An American Carol).

Audiences tend to stay away from these films, but if you need a prestige-picture workhorse, you can't do better than Dickens. The early-industrial, little-Britain look of the sets never gets old; the grotesque characters are always game for fresh scenery chewing; and the improbable, coincidence-driven plots (reviled by every generation of readers following the one that read Dickens as he was meant to be read, in cheap periodicals) work beautifully in long-form visual media.

But if Dickens has anything to teach us about money, we're in trouble. The author's own career demonstrates the good things that can come in a culture of vigorous lending, borrowing, buying, and selling. (From an impoverished childhood, Dickens rose to record-busting international sales and proto–rock star glory.) Yet the premise underlying all his work is that money grows on trees, that wealth exists in some leprechaun's mug and never runs out.

Again and again in Dickens' work, money problems get resolved not through sound financial management or hard work but through patronage. Mr. Brownlow, the rich mark who adopts Oliver Twist, whiles away his days hanging around bookstalls, helping out orphans, and taking trips to the West Indies. The source of his fortune? He's just rich.

John Jarndyce, of the comically long estate lawsuit that fuels Bleak House's dense plot, ends up (spoiler alert) with his family fortune eaten up by legal fees. Yet whatever diminution in lifestyle this causes remains unclear. Jarndyce is simply relieved of the burden of all that money, with no loss in his ability to arrange matters happily for good characters.

Even mighty Ebeneezer Scrooge, who at least pays capitalism the respect of constant toil and worry, turns out just to be working too hard. It's like an early variation of the platitude about wanting what you have instead of having what you want. Scrooge just has to stop being so concerned with money, and then Tiny Tim will become miraculously uncrippled. (Or so it seems; the book is nebulous on Tiny Tim's fate. Adaptations have taken various views, with some going so far as to have the unfortunately named tyke throw off his crutches, Lourdes-style.)

As a journalist, Dickens had inklings of where money gets made. In a wonderful reversal in Great Expectations, the eponymous fortune comes not from several expected sources but from the convict Magwitch, whom we earlier saw transported to Australia. Tellingly, it's never explained how he got rich. Apparently, just farming down under for a few years will fill up your Swiss bank account.

George Mason University economist David M. Levy has tracked some of Dickens' creepier predilections, including his curious hatred of the anti-slavery movement. "Dickens is attacking classical economics from the right," Levy says. "But right-wing attacks on markets are very popular on the left."

There are feudal elements in Dickensomics, a fondness for a universe where everything stays in its proper place. G.K. Chesterton shrewdly praised one of Dickens' literary virtues that others might treat as a vice: that his characters by and large do not change in the course of the story. But what comes across most clearly is a journalist's fake sophistication about money, a belief that the wealth just somehow exists and needs only to get to the right people (or be returned to them, sometimes after being retrieved from Jews and moneylenders).

It's a boom-time mentality, the kind of thing you can only believe when you are, as Dickens was, well into a period of massive wealth creation, so that you have come to take good fortune for granted. If that's Dickens' lesson for our Hard Times, somebody ought to call CNBC.

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a writer in Los Angeles.

NEXT: The Pole Position

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  1. Tim,

    Get a grip, man! Yes, he railed against child labor and workhouses, but in the end, he was just an author who wrote stories to earn a living. Dickensomics? Move on and read something you like instead of getting upset over a long-dead author of fiction.

  2. “…opines that Dickens didn’t believe in “using money to make money.”

    ???

  3. Oh wow, its about time that guy came back!

    RT
    http://www.privacy-tools.4-all.org

  4. Hey, anonymity guy, RTFA. j/k,

    the lack of change in your character is positively Dickensian.

  5. Just as long as Miss Havisham and her army of robot monkeys don’t come back, I’m cool with it.

  6. Just as long as Miss Havisham and her army of robot monkeys don’t come back

    Why in the world are you bringing up King Lear in a Dickens thread?

  7. Tim Cavanaugh,

    Again and again in Dickens’ work, money problems get resolved not through sound financial management or hard work but through patronage.

    Because of this one could assume that he was heavily influenced by Grimm’s fairy tales. Or at least the ones with “happy endings” (that is after the child has been resurrected after being eaten by his parents, etc.).

    George Mason University economist David M. Levy has tracked some of Dickens’ creepier predilections, including his curious hatred of the anti-slavery movement.

    I don’t know how “curious” it is, since it was a common enough attitude amongst some what we might call left-wing types at the time. Thus Thomas Carlyle and the “dismal science.”

  8. Surely you wouldn’t kill twenty-six baby bunnies, SugarFree!

  9. Oh, and I thought it was a great article.

  10. 2 points about Dickens:

    First, as near as I can tell, the only point to reading Dickens is so that you get the joke when someone else later mocks it. Take, for example, South Park.

    Second, the class warfare tack seems to me to be more about the issue of inherited wealth perpetuating itself, while the poor have little opportunity to improve their station in life.

  11. Again and again in Dickens’ work, money problems get resolved not through sound financial management or hard work but through patronage.

    But does anybody read Horatio Alger these days?

  12. Syd,

    They don’t have to. Every supermarket I see has displays chocked full of books on how to make money (or how to read the Bible).

  13. First, as near as I can tell, the only point to reading Dickens is so that you get the joke when someone else later mocks it.

    Or if you want to torture a bunch of high school students, but you’re not cruel enough to make them read Ulysses.

  14. My impression about Jarndyce is that he had his wealth from elsewhere (indeed, murky), but the reason he wasn’t bothered by the family fortune’s being eaten up in legal fees is that he wisely never relied on that source of income.

  15. Warty,

    Speaking of which, today is Bloomsday. Not that I partake.

  16. Maybe these times merit my taking up something by A. Trollope.

  17. It seems a little flip to say that Dickens had a rough childhood, but hey, things got better.

    I mean, the guy’s family fell into a financial abyss (it might have been his father’s fault, but it’s not like his son could help that) and HE had to work like a dog for years.

    It’s not like his family just had to cut out Christmas presents for a year.

    Even if he gets economics wrong, I think it’s understandable why he’d get such a jaded view of the field.

  18. it would be interesting, too, to see Jane Austen’s economics dissected. Seems to be nothing but one character after another talking about “She’s 5,000 pounds annually” without anyone ever doing a lick of work.

  19. jane austen’s universe is (solely) populated with trustafarians. and clerics.

    bloomsday 4 tha win!

  20. dhex,

    The clerics must raise chickens of course.

  21. John Jarndyce, of the comically long estate lawsuit that fuels Bleak House’s dense plot, ends up (spoiler alert) with his family fortune eaten up by legal fees. Yet whatever diminution in lifestyle this causes remains unclear. Jarndyce is simply relieved of the burden of all that money, with no loss in his ability to arrange matters happily for good characters.

    I don’t see how anyone who actually read Bleak House could say this.

    NOBODY ever got the property at stake in the lawsuit but the government. John Jarndyce had his own fortune, which had nothing to do with the lawsuit.

    The lawsuit concerned property that could have belonged, depending on how the case turned out, to Lady Dedlock, Miss Flite, Richard and Ada Carstone, John Jarndyce, and other people not specifically named in the book, as it had been going on for generations.

    But the lawyers and the government got all of it, because the estate was consumed by costs.

    I think the book is very relevant today.

  22. The character of Magwitch, the convict who made a fortune out of wool, was based on real life. Convicts comprised Australia’s first traders, industrialists and architects. One of the founders of Australia’s first bank in 1817 was a female ex-convict. The first novel written and published in Australia was by a convict author.

  23. To: Being Deported To Australia Is A Good Way To Get Rich

    Bob Hughes, in his The Fatal Shore observed something to the affect of:

    “Transportation to Australia was the most successful experiment in prison reform ever attempted”.

    I repeat, that is not an exact quote, but it’s pretty much the conclusion old Hughes came up with and if I’m not mistaken the conclusion that most other OZ historians would come up with too.

  24. Charles Dickens visited the United States once on a kind of book tour, and did receive an almost Beatlemaniac greeting (he was greeted everywhere by crowds and dignitaries, his shows were sold out in every town he went to, and there were numerous fistfights between ticketholders and non-ticketholders trying to crash the party). Much to the dismay of his audiences, Dickens spent much of his time criticizing American book publishers for printing his stories without paying him royalties. Whether he was a gross hypocrite or a valiant defender of copyrights, he did have some business sense.

  25. “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”

    A good attitude then and a good attitude now. Just as good an idea as not letting lawyers churn away your money.

  26. Anthony Powell once noted that Balzac had it all over Dickens–as far as money was concerned–as Dickens’ own experience was more or less cataclysmic. Suddenly poor as a youth, he was a more or less overnight success in his only real profession. Balzac, by contrast, was a detail-oriented failure in his finances, losing money by degrees, attempting to gain it back via various schemes.

    On the other hand, Auden put forward that Trollope beats Dickens, Balzac, and everyone else when it comes to money matters.

  27. The idea that anyone knows anything about economics has just been refuted by the facts.

  28. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no jokeOn the other hand, Auden put forward that Trollope beats Dickens, Balzac, and everyone else when it comes to money matters.
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