Phineas (Donal McCann) famously humiliated and harassed by Mr Clarkson (Sidney Bromley) who urges him “Do Be Punctual” (Pallisers 4:7)
Dear friends and readers,
Another in the same spirit as my last. Again on Victoria someone asked for citations of debt in Victorian novels, so I wrote as follows:
As he often mirrors common reality, Trollope has so many instances and characters driven, worried and occasionally (rarely but it happens) exploiting debt in different ways it’s impossible to catalogue briefly. The most common and well-remembered plot device is of the man who counter-signs a bill for someone else and then the other person doesn’t pay it. Phineas Finn lured and pressure by Lawrence Fitzgibbon in Phineas Finn, but also Mark Robarts in Framley Parsonage who co-signs for Lord Lufton who can much better afford living on more than he has.
Larger versions of this include male characters who owe a lot of money and hide this or that their business is failing or non-existant: this leads to suicide — Melmotte and Lopez and Dobbs Brougton. Debt collectors can sometimes hound women and they seek to sell jewels or use them as insurance (Lizzie Eustace). The “blaggard” type male who we are to have contempt for is the man driven to take money from a woman (though we may be led to understand why he does): George Vavasour dragging money out of Alice Vavasour because he has to pay huge election bribes, and then breaking his sister’s arm when the grandfather dies and it’s discovered he had left just about everyone to George’s sister, but in trust so he cannot get at it.
Kate Vavasour holding her broken arm after George has fled (from the original illustrations of Trollope’s novels, this one by Miss Taylor, a scene in Can You Forgive Her?)
The most interesting instances though are those which enabled us to see the working of finance in the Victorian period: say, the short story, “Why Frau Frohman Raised her Prices” shows an Austrian woman innkeeper’s struggle not to raise her prices:
The Frau had always held her head high,– had never been ashamed of looking her neighbour in the face, but when she was advised to rush at once up to seven swansigers and a half (or five shillings a day), she felt that, should she do so, she would be overwhelmed with shame. Would not her customers then have cause of complaint? Would not they have such cause that they would in truth desert her? Did she not know that Herr Weiss, the magistrate from Brixen, with his wife, and his wife’s sister, and the children, who came yearly to the Peacock, could not afford to bring his family at this increased rate of expenses? And the Fraulein Tendel with her sister would never come from Innsbruck if such an announcement was made to her.
She learns a very hard way that to keep up with inflation (as we would put it, she must must raise her prices. Trollope analyses the workings of a business: how the Frau has to buy things before she makes money by selling them, and how when the price of these go up, she must put her prices up; if she does not, how she must buy inferior goods and then loses customers but when she does, she helps other people do better (who work for her). He does not (unfortunately) go further than that, but it is still an insightful analysis which explicates the workings of capitalism. In Doctor Thorne Roger Scatcherd now an alcoholic and ostracized from people of his own intelligence because he is not of their class grew rich by saving the large amounts he made as a construction worker who opened his own business; he then lent money to others to begin enterprises. In the Victorian period it was very difficult (well nigh impossible) for an ordinary man to borrow large sums to open a business. Charles Darwin’s father grew rich by lending money and charging interest (like Roger) of course.
Novels by Trollope about gambling or fearful of it will be about debt include s a minor gambler in Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, man who is an aristocratic drone type (familiar) and lives off his mistress; Burgo Fitzgerald does very badly at the gambling tables when last seen in Can You Forgive Her and is given an allowance by Plantagenet Palliser who also becomes wrathful when his wife, Lady Glen, congenial with Burgo and still in love with him, wants to gamble too and blamed Alice Vavasour (poor Alice). Quiet prostitution within boarding houses to pay the rent is shown in Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie. How single women really got on.
Oliphant’s Hester is about the workings of a business and family and thus how well the successful yet lonely, envied and somehwat isolated heroine by the end has handled debt (It reflects Oliphant’s successful career). Gwendolen marries Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda to avoid her mother going into debt; the novel opens with her learning how gambling will not do. In Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, the secondary heroine, Cynthia is hounded by Preston, a ruthless aggressive steward who sexually wants her (and now wants to be allied to her as her mother has married up by marrying Mr Gibson), Preston, I say, tortures her emotionally over a 20 pound debt and blackmailing letters to prove it; he wants to force her to marry him.
And so much in Dickens, just to start: Little Dorrit. The Marshalsea prison. Mr and Mrs Merdle destroyed. Arthur Clenham thrown in jail near the end.
And who can forget:
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure
nineteen pounds, nineteen six, result happiness. Annual
income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds,
ought and six, result misery. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Debt does never seem to make anyone happy in Victorian novels. It does not make individual people happy in our own day, and that’s why the Republicans can manipulate the populace by arguing the state deficit must be brought down. Corporations are not people; nor are states. Deficits when the money brought in is used by gov’t to expand social services, building roads and schools, providing for lower interest rates really does provide more jobs and a better life for all. Ask Frau Frohmann how capitalism can work well.