Dickens Is Back. Watch Your Wallet.
If you want to understand the economy, don't turn to the author of Oliver Twist for answers.
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 (email@example.com) is a writer in Los Angeles.