The Financial Fiction Genre

From Chaucer to the Victorian and Edwardian Eras


Late Medieval England

Geoffrey Chaucer

Although not one of his main claims to fame, Chaucer has the distinction of being "the first and so far the only English poet who was a customs officer and accountant." He worked as controller in the Port of London, 1374-86, and as Clerk of the Works, 1398-91. In the former capacity he kept records of customs duties paid by merchants whereas in the latter post he was concerned with paying out money. Not surprisingly then there are frequent mentions of money in the General Prologue to the to the Canterbury Tales particularly in connection with two of the characters, the reeve (an officer responsible for overseeing a manorial estate) and the merchant. There are also many accounting-related words in the Shipman's Tale, perhaps because of Chaucer's experience in the Port of London.

Late 17th, 18th and early 19th Century Britain

Bernard Mandeville

Bernard Mandeville (or Bernard de Mandeville, as he is also known) was born in Rotterdam in 1670. Shortly after graduating in medicine from the University of Leiden he settled in England where he found fame as a writer. At that time England was undergoing a financial revolution and Mandeville's work reflects on the deeper significance of these changes. A poem of his, The Grumbling Hive or, Knaves Turn'd Honest, first published in 1705, set forth his view that for the good of society concessions must be made to moral weaknesses: "T'enjoy the World's Conveniences ... Fraud, Luxury, and Pride must live". That poem was included in his best known work, The Fable of the Bees first published as a pamphlet in 1714 and in a much enlarged form in 1723. The Fable included discussions of questions of economics, including the role of money, and, as its subtitle suggests, Private Vices, Publick Benefits it anticipated Adam Smith's idea that the pursuit of self-interest can be beneficial for society.

Daniel Defoe

Although best known today as the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe was not only a novelist but also an economist, historian, journalist, and religious controversialist. He served the government as a secret agent who spied on political opponents first in England and later in Scotland during the negotiations between the English and Scottish governments leading to the Act of Union in 1707. Defoe was a friend and supporter of William Paterson, the founder of the Bank of England. Although not above indulging in speculation himself on occasions, he frequently attacked stockjobbers and manipulation of prices in his writings and accurately predicted the collapses of both the South Sea Company and John Law's Mississippi Company in France. Of his works of fiction it is Robinson Crusoe which has received most attention from economists, starting with Karl Marx who used Crusoe's mode of existence to explain the labour theory of value. In the novel Crusoe finds some money from his wrecked ship and takes it back to his cave only to realise that it is worthless to him and that the value of things depends only on their utility and his industry and ingenuity.

Sir Walter Scott

His fame rests on his historical novels, a genre of which he was the pioneer. However Scott also has a place in financial history as a result of his non-fiction writing. During the period 1825-1826 over 60 English banks failed. The banking crisis was blamed on was blamed on small, weak country banks issuing too many small denomination notes. Consequently parliament proposed to ban the issue of notes of less than £5. This led to strong protests in Scotland. Under the pseudonym of Malchai Malagrowther, the novelist Sir Walter Scott wrote a series of letters for the Edinburgh Weekly Journal in February and March 1826 demonstrating the superiority of the Scottish banking system and the disastrous consequences that would follow the abolition of low denomination notes. Parliament was persuaded to think again and the ban was limited to England and Wales. As a result some Scottish banks have retained the right to issue banknotes and still do so today even though only the Bank of England does so in England and Wales.

17th Century Holland and Tulip Mania

Alexandre Dumas

A collective madness can ensue when large numbers of people are gripped by the illusion that there is a sure and effortless way of making large sums of money. There have been many examples of spectacular booms followed by devastating crashes, such as the South Sea Bubble of the eighteenth century, the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and, more recently, the crash of 1987 that ended the boom of the Yuppie decade. The earliest such boom was tulipmania in Holland in the 17th century. Speculation in tulips sent their prices, and especially those of rare varieties, to astronomical levels and fortunes were lost when the bubble suddenly burst. The memory of these events explains the significance of the search for a Black Tulip in the short novel of that title by Alexandre Dumas written in 1850. This tale of financial corruption is based on story of the execution of John and Cornelius De Witte, a true event, which occurred nearly 40 years after the episode of tulip mania. It is said that King William of Holland suggested to Dumas that he should use the fate of the De Wittes as the basis of a novel.

The Victorian Age

Stendhal

Marie-Henri Beyle, generally known by his pen name Stendhal had a distinguished military career in the French army during the Napoleonic Wars and fought in Italy, Germany, Russia and Austria. After Waterloo Beyle moved to Italy and started to write works on painting, his travels and literary criticism, as well as novels. In 1836 he returned to Paris where he stayed for three years and wrote a Life of Napoleon before returning to Italy where he died in 1842.

Lucien Leuwen, an unfinished work first published in 1894, is probably the most autobiographical of his novels. Leuwen is expelled from L'Ecole Polytechnique, joins the army, has a love affair which ends unhappily, and later pursues a career in government service in Paris. His father is a millionaire banker who is not above using his wealth to influence not only the decisions of the French government but also its composition, to his own advantage. Stendhal says of him there were perhaps only two things on which he would never have given way: bloodshed, and banking. However Lucien Leuwen is more of an idealist and spurns the opportunities open to him and instead asks for a post in the embassy in Capel (i.e. Rome) when the book comes to its unplanned end.

Honoré de Balzac

The power and importance of money is a pervasive theme in The Human Comedy, a great sequence of novels depicting French society in the first half of the 19th century. The most significant, as regards the world of finance, are probably The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau and The House of Nucingen. The former is noteworthy for its treatment of the process of bankruptcy, a subject that may have been close to Balzac's heart since he had studied law and came close to bankruptcy himself on one occasion. The novel also features the first disquisition ever on the science and mystique of "branding" merchandise as a marketing ploy. Cesar Birotteau turns from straightforward commerce to indulge in speculation with the result that he finds his fate in the hands of two bankers, du Tillet (a former employee of his) and Nucingen, but in the end he succeeds in repaying his debts. Both Nucingen and du Tillet reappear in The House of Nucingen. Among the most impressive of the financial coups of Nucingen in that work is his speculative windfall gained as a result of early news of the result of the Battle of Waterloo. The same story has been told of one of the Rothschilds who, it has been claimed, served as a model for Nucingen. However it has also been claimed that Balzac's story of Nucingen's speculation has unfairly coloured attitudes to the Rothschild's financial activities following Waterloo.

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Marineau, born in Norwich in 1802, achieved fame as a populariser of economics. Between 1832 and 1834 her Illustrations of Political Economy appeared in 25 volumes. In it she used fiction as a vehicle both for entertainment and for propounding, in an easily digestible form, the theories of Adam Smith, Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo. Other sources of inspiration included recent events and government publications! Berkeley the Banker, published in two parts as numbers 14 and 15 of Illustrations of Political Economy deals with the events of the commercial crash of 1825 as a background to the story of Hester Parndon who marries a forger and becomes implicated in his criminal activities. When Lord Brougham sent Martineau government reports to use in constructing her stories she replied "I certainly never before met with materials so fit for the purposes of fiction."

In addition to her series on political economy Martineau produced two other mulit-volume works during the same short period; Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated in 10 volumes, and Illustrations of Taxation in 5 volumes. Later in her career she wrote articles, pamphlets and books on such varied topics as political reform, history, education, hypnotism, her travels in America and Palestine, and the enfranchisement of women.

William Makepeace Thackeray

Thackeray was born in 1811 in India where his father was a highly-placed official in the East India Company. At the age of 5 he was sent to school in England, his father having died in 1815, and never saw India again. Thackeray was born in 1811 in India where his father was a highly-placed official in the East India Company. At the age of 5 he was sent to school in England, his father having died in 1815, and never saw India again. Thackeray attended Cambridge but left without taking a degree. For a few brief months in 1833 he worked for a bill discounting house. Ten years later after a colleague on the staff of Fraser's Magazine referred to a "Bill Crackaway" who knew all about shady financial dealings because he had worked as a bill discounter in the City, Thackeray assumed the remarks were directed at him and protested vigorously to the editor.

Although he had inherited considerable wealth from his father much of it had been placed by his stepfather in Indian banks which failed during a financial crisis in 1833, the same year in which he had briefly worked in the bill discounting business. The loss of his fortune caused Thackeray to turn to writing in order to earn a living. There is an echo of this financial crisis in his best-known novel Vanity Fair where he refers to "the great Calcutta house of Fogle, Fake, and Cracksman," which "failed for a million, and plunged half the Indian public into misery and ruin."

In Thackeray's first novel, Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond, published in 1849, the seemingly respectable life insurance director Brough flees to France with the firm's clients' money, leaving the honest clerk Samuel Titmarsh, (who had purchased shares in the company using his aunt's diamond heirloom as credit) to assume full financial responsibility.

In 1854, with the publication of The Newcomes, Thackeray returned to the world of finance. Barnes Newcome, the villain of the piece, and his family are major stakeholders in the Anglo-Indian Bundelcund Banking Company, generally known as the BBC (of course when Thackeray wrote his book the initials did not have another, better-known meaning!). The bank is described by the novel's narrator as a "complicated, enormous, outrageous swindle." After the directors and lawyers have lined their pockets they flee the scene leaving the bank to crash.

Charles Dickens

In one of his works of non-fiction, the book about his travels in the United States, American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens criticised Americans for their love of "'smart' dealing which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust". That was in the final chapter. The actual title of the book first published in 1842, is a punning allusion to the situation arising from the financial crisis in 1837 which led many of the States to repudiate their debts they had incurred by lavish borrowing from foreign banks.

Two real bank scandals formed the background to one of the novels of Charles Dickens. In Little Dorrit, Dickens depicts the rise of the banker Merdle in social esteem, the eventual failure of his speculations and his subsequent suicide. In marked contrast to the dishonest banker, Arthur Clennam after losing his savings in Merdle's schemes, settles for a "modest life of usefulness and happiness" by marrying Amy Dorrit.

Little Dorrit was originally published between 1855 and 1857 (many of Dickens' works first appeared in serial form) at a time when the collapse of the Royal British Bank was receiving much publicity. The collapse was a result of the bank having channelled most of its capital into Welsh gold mines in the vain hope the Wales would prove to be the next California. (The discoveries which sparked the California Gold Rush had been made in 1848). After the bank's collapse it was discovered that the directors had made secret loans to themselves and their friends.

Dickens used the preface to Little Dorrit to defend what he called "that extravagant conception, Mr. Merdle, by alluding to "a certain Irish bank" - the Tipperary Bank which failed in 1857 - and he also mentioned "the curious coincidence" that the public examination of the former directors of the Royal British Bank took place when he was finishing the book.

Fiction in the Banker's Magazine

The idea that truth of the financial world is stranger than fiction was propounded in a professional journal, the Bankers' Magazine, by its editor David Morier Evans, in 1857. Two years later published a 600 page work entitled Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Financial, Mercantile, Criminal. Yet, despite his conviction that the deeds of real criminals were more audacious than anything found in novels, Evans turned his hand to fiction and in his final years as editor, from 1870 to 1873, the Bankers' Magazine published The Banker's Daughter a story which ran for 30 episodes about a failed banker and his devoted daughter.

Gustav Freytag

Gustav Freytag was a German dramatist and author who, as far as his novels were concerned, modelled himself on Dickens. His major work Soll und Haben, published in 1855 and dealing with contemporary commercial life was the most successful German novel of the century. The title is an idiom meaning debit and credit and accounting permeates the novel and is fundamental to the plot. The hero of the book, Anton Wohlfahrt, progresses from elementary book-keeping to managing Schroeter & Co., a great Hamburg-based commercial house. In Soll und Haben Freytag celebrates the rise of the industrious middle classes and the decline of the aristocracy. Despite Freytag's democratic credentials the work has been criticised for the manner in which it portrays Poles and Jews.

Anthony Trollope

In his autobiography Trollope described what inspired him to write, in the early 1870s, a novel set in the City's financial institutions and London's exclusive clubs and prestigious West End squares.

If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now.
Like Dickens, Trollope may well have derived inspiration from the debacle of the Irish Tipperary Bank. Augustus Melmotte, the chief villain of The Way We Live Now commits suicide with prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) - the same fate that befell John Sadlier of the Tipperary Bank. (However not all the crooked financiers go unpunished. Melmotte's American partner, Hamilton Fisker, marries Melmotte's daughter in a cynical move to recoup some of the money he had lost owing to his partner's dealings).

In addition to Sadleir, various other rogues have been suggested as a model for Melmotte. These include George Hudson, "the railway king" who was accused of bribery and embezzling shareholders' money but was never prosecuted. Hudson and Sadleir, like Melmotte in the novel, were also members of parliament. There are some similarities between Melmotte's fictitious career and that of Charles Lefevre, a Frenchman involved in railway schemes in central America. (The Inter-Oceanic Railway of Honduras collapsed in 1872, a couple of years before Trollope's novel was published). Albert Gottheimer, later known as Grant, who bought Leicester Square and who lost £20 million out of £24 million that he raised in the City, is yet another candidate. However, Melmotte is really a timeless character who may be compared to any larger than life rogue businessman. The journalist D.J. Taylor in an article in The Independent (Wednesday 8 March 2000) suggested that "Melmotte ... is the late Robert Maxwell."

Ironically it has been alleged by Antonia Swinson, a novelist who is also a business journalist with a Scottish newspaper, that there was a whiff of financial scandal attached to Trollope himself. She claims that when he was a civil servant he accepted hospitality from George Burns and his son, Scottish shipping magnates who enjoyed a near monopoly of the mail service to Ireland. When a parliamentary committee investigated a rival bid for the Irish mail run Trollope spent four days giving evidence which helped to persuade the committee to decide in favour of the Burnses who absorbed the rival line. Antonia Swinson has revealed more in her novel The Love Child, published in 2000.

George Gissing

Timothy Alborn, a historian at Harvard University, has drawn attention to similarities between the treatment of financial scandals in the works of Trollope and Gissing. The Whirlpool, published in 1897, begins with the failure of the Britannia Loan, Assurance, Investment, and Banking Company whose director subsequently commits suicide but Gissing's lesser villains continue their degenerate lives unpunished.

Emile Zola

Emile Zola had no special predilection for money: he never even had a bank account but drew what he needed from his publisher. Yet, as might be expected of the founder of the naturalist movement in literature, when he did tackle the subject of finance in L'Argent or Money, a novel set in the Paris Bourse or Stock Exchange, he did so thoroughly and realistically. He read Les Memoires d'un coulissier by Ernest Feydeau who had been a stock-jobber for almost 25 years. He also drew inspiration from a number of financial scandals that occurred in the period of the Third Republic such as the collapse of L'Union Generale which was the model for the Universal Bank of Zola's novel. One of the central figures in the affair of L'Union Generale, Eugene Bontoux, had published a book about it. Zola read it and also consulted various bankers and financial experts during the course of his researches and re-read Karl Marx.

The main character in Money, published in 1891, is Aristide Saccard who had appeared in an earlier work La Curée in 1872. La Curée , which was translated into English as the Kill, was a satire on financiers and politicians. In Money Saccard learns from a young engineer, Hamelin, of deposits of silver and iron ore in Palestine and dreaming of achieving power and wealth by financing the building of railways to exploit these discoveries he founds the Universal Bank for that purpose. Speculation in the shares of the bank sends their value soaring but the bubble bursts and Saccard is brought down by his rival, the Jewish financier Gunderman, a character modelled on Baron James de Rothschild.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad a Pole who became one of the greatest English language writers was born in Berdyczˇw, or Berdychiv as it is now called, in the Ukraine. At the age of 16 he moved to Marseille and started work as a seaman, eventually ending up in Britain and becoming a British subject in 1886. Many of his novels draw substantially on his experience of the sea but one of his later works, Chance, published in 1913 just before La Belle Epoque was brought to a shattering end by the outbread of the Great War, deals with banking. One of the main characters, Flora de Barral, is the daughter of Smith de Barral, a self-made financier.

Despite a lack of explanations of what he would do with their money Smith de Barral had no problems in attracting investors who are lured by the promise of 10% on all deposits. Needless to say their naive trust in de Barral proves misplaced. In the aftermath of the great Credit Crunch of the first decade of the 21st Century it is impossible to avoid thinking of the foreign investors in Iceland's banks who blindly assumed that a country with a tiny population could support a number of banks competing on the world stage. The Icelandic banks were by no means unique. Numerous banks in other countries were brought low by the greed or ambition of their bosses and only survive thanks to the tax payers of their respective countries. However, irrespective of whether the problems were due to the incompetence of the bosses or to criminal activities, as in the case of Bernard Madoff, Conrad's novel shows that investor psychology, like other aspects of human nature, is essentially unchanging.

The full text of Chance is available online.
 
 


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Last updated 16 February 2010.