A Tale Of Two Economies

The economic crisis is rattling people's nerves, but imagine living during the time of Charles Dickens, when the Bank of England was on the verge of collapse and financial ruin was sudden. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a professor at Oxford University's Magdalen College, talks with Renee Montagne about his article comparing today's financial crisis with the economic downturn when Dickens was a boy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to spend the next few minutes contemplating financial ruin. Not our own for a change, but that in the world of Charles Dickens. His was a time in the 19th century that the Bank of England nearly went under. One could lose everything suddenly and totally, and a young boy like Oliver Twist could find himself on the street working for an unsavory character like the pickpocket Fagin.

(Soundbite of song "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two")

Mr. RON MOODY: (As Fagin) (Singing) In this life, one thing counts. In the bank, large amounts. I'm afraid these don't grow on trees. You've got to pick a pocket or two.

MONTAGNE: Whether it was "Oliver" or "Little Dorrit" or "Christmas Carol," hard times permeated Dickens' work. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a professor at Oxford University's Magdalen College. He's written about the parallels between the current financial crises and those in 19th century England that began when Charles Dickens was a boy.

Dr. ROBERT DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST (Professor of English, Magdalen College, Oxford University): 1825, that's when the Bank of England realized that it had been handing out lots of money to speculative investments, often in overseas projects that would never get off the drawing board. Its reserves were gradually dwindling. It was down to its last three million. And it withdrew all the loans, which meant that almost overnight, 500 companies went bankrupt. And you see echoes of that in Dickens' writing. "Nicholas Nickleby" has Mrs. Nickleby telling her husband that they should speculate with all their assets. And what happens is the bubble bursts.

MONTAGNE: Leaving the Nickleby family desperate and penniless as in this scene from a BBC production of "Nicholas Nickleby."

(Soundbite of BBC production "Nicholas Nickleby")

Ms. STELLA GONET: (As Mrs. Nickleby) My husband died of a broken heart.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (As Ralph Nickleby) Nonsense, no such thing. A man can't pay his debts, then he dies of a broken heart, and his widow is a martyr.

Ms. ROMOLA GARAI: (As Kate Nickleby) It was father's dying wish that we should come to London in the hope you might help us, uncle.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Ralph Nickleby) Hmm.

Dr. DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST: You see echoes of these financial crises rippling through the whole 19th century. In the mid 1850s, a huge bank called Strahan, Paul & Bates folded. The main shareholder had been defrauding it. And this was happening while Dickens was writing "Little Dorrit." There's another character, Merdle. And Dickens describes how he sets about defrauding the bank of millions of pounds. And when he's discovered, he slits his wrists. And that is a direct parallel with a real lord of the Treasury, John Sadlier, who had been plundering a bank in Tipperary. So, some of the things which you tend to think of as modern are actually as old as the 19th century. A lot of the popular songs that we now think of as being rather cheery in the 19th century, reflect serious economic hardships. "My old man said follow the van and don't dilly dally on the way," for instance.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Dilly Dally (My Old Man)")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) We had to move away, 'cos the rent we couldn't pay. The moving van came round just after dark. There was me and my old man, Shoving things inside the van, As we'd often done before, let me remark.

Dr. DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST: It's about being thrown out of your home. And the word home, or houseless, chime all way through Dickens' novels like a death knell, as if he recognizes just how fragile, how precarious people's houses and their homes are.

MONTAGNE: There are many people who don't realize that one could be thrown in jail simply for having a debt.

Dr. DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST: That's right. Yes.

MONTAGNE: And in Dickens' case, I think his family joined his father in the prison.

Dr. DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST: That's absolutely right. And it's a crisis that cast a long, dark shadow over the rest of his career. "Little Dorrit" has very strange echoes of young Charles Dickens visiting his father in a prison.

MONTAGNE: And here's that scene from a BBC production of "Little Dorrit."

(Soundbite of BBC production "Little Dorrit")

Mr. TOM COURTENAY: (As William Dorrit) Oh, Amy. I have brought disgrace upon us all.

Ms. CLAIRE FOY: (As Amy Dorrit) No, you haven't, father. We all love you, and we're all very proud of you.

Mr. COURTENAY: (As William Dorrit) But it's not as it was meant to be. You've known nothing else. But if you'd known me as I was before I came here, before you were born...

MONTAGNE: Charles Dickens himself, when his family lost everything, he ended up in very dire circumstances, working as a kid in a factory.

Dr. DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST: That's absolutely right. It was his job to stick labels onto bottles of blacking, which was the forerunner of shoe polish. And he was doing this in the window of a factory. It was a ramshackle, tumbledown sort of place with rats. He worked next to somebody called Fagin. And Fagin, it turned out, was the only boy who was nice to him. And you can see some of Dickens' ambivalence in the way he turned Fagin into the villain of "Oliver Twist" because, of course, it's Fagin who drags Oliver Twist down onto his level.

MONTAGNE: Well, yeah, I wonder if it would have been different if he had born poor. The notion that somehow he had a comfortable childhood suddenly shattered is what gave him such sensitivity to the whole thing, that it may have been a bit of an obsession.

Dr. DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST: That's very interesting. And you see elements of that again in some of his writing. Early fiction, like "Oliver Twist," one could think of as being a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy in which the hero is showered with gold as a reward at the end of the novel.

MONTAGNE: Were there happy endings for Charles Dickens?

Dr. DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST: There were happy endings for him, in one sense. He made a lot of money out of writing. He left 93,000 pounds in his will, which in today's money would make him a millionaire several times over. But the fact that he was always worried about money, even though he was very generous with it and used to give a lot of money to charity and to begging letter writers, suggests that it was something that nagged at him throughout his life.

There's something that his father said to him when he was in the Marshalsea debtor's prison that really seems to have struck a chord. He told him, if a man had 20 pounds a year and spent 19 pounds, 19 shillings and six pence, he would be happy. But that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched. He put exactly those lines into the mouths of Mr. Micawber in "David Copperfield," which was his autobiographical novel.

(Soundbite of BBC production "David Copperfield")

Mr. BOB HOSKINS (As Mr. Micawber): Annual income, 20 pounds. Annual expenditure, 20 pounds and six. Result, misery. Blossom is blighted. Relief is withered. You are, in short, flattened.

MONTAGNE: And that stark thought from a BBC production of "David Copperfield." Oxford Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is writing a biography of Dickens, and he's offered more thoughts on the parallels between our hard times and Dickens' in the British newspaper The Telegraph. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two")

Mr. RON MOODY: (As Fagin) (Singing) Dear old gent passing by, Something nice takes his eye. Everything's clear, attack the rear. Get in and pick a pocket or two. You've got to pick a pocket or two, boys. You've got to pick a pocket or two.

FAGIN'S BOYS: (Singing) Have no fear, attack the rear. Get in and pick a pocket or two.

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