Dickens’s finances

This post was written by Warren Weiss. Warren was originally educated in law and mathematics, and is an accountant in general practice in Finchley.  Bringing his professional expertise to the Dickens Studies MA, he researched at the remote inter-disciplinary frontier where literary biography meets accountancy.  He worked on the MA part-time for two years from January 2017, and graduated with distinction.  He is currently researching for a PhD on Dickens and finance at Queens University Belfast.

Early in my MA in Dickens Studies, my interest was caught by some manuscript notebooks at the Dickens Museum, in which were listed various transactions.  They had been handwritten by clerks at Dickens’s bank, Coutts & Co., and were effectively the nineteenth century equivalent of Dickens’s bank statements.   As a chartered accountant in public practice, I knew that bank statements can be used as the basis for preparing financial accounts.  Dickens had never had to do this, because there was not in his lifetime a requirement to prepare accounts.  I appointed myself as his accountant and began preparing his accounts as I would for any of my clients.  The plan was to research Dickens’s personal finances and how he managed them in the early years of his career (1837-43), before he became wealthy. 

Every accountant and tax inspector knows that a person’s accounts tell a story that is not necessarily the same as the story that the person tells about him/herself.  I wondered why Dickens’s biographers had never augmented their work with financial analysis techniques.  My supervisor, Pete Orford, suggested it was something to do with the field of Dickens Studies not being awash with chartered accountants.

The question of Dickens’s aptitude as a financial manager is important because money is such a prominent recurring theme in his works, which are full of money lenders, bill discounters, bankruptcy, debtors’ prisons, creditors, prudence and improvidence.  Dickens constantly tells us how much things cost.  Plots hinge on the capital value of the orphan’s birthright in Oliver Twist, Scrooge’s obsession with money in A Christmas Carol, Pip’s yearning for prosperity in Great Expectations.  Consider the alchemy of producing money from London’s rubbish heaps in Our Mutual Friend, and the debt wielded by Quilp as the weapon which ensnares Grandfather Trent and Nell, forcing their odyssey in The Old Curiosity Shop.  There are dozens of other examples.

It is clear from Dickens’s works that he was fascinated by financial detail and admired accurate accountancy and skilful budgeting.  He explicitly commends Tom Pinch, Amy Dorrit, Tim Linkinwater and Esther Summerson, among others, in this regard.  Conversely, Pip and Herbert in Great Expectations, and David and Dora in David Copperfield, provide striking examples of how not to do it.  In Dombey & Son, we find James Carker, a rogue trader deceiving his employer with illusory business activity, facilitated by his genius as an accountant.  It is a subtle fraud, and Dickens exhibits here a remarkable degree of financial awareness.

The Archives Department at Coutts contains a complete record of Dickens’s bank account, from 1837 when he opened it, until 1897 when his estate was wound up.  These manuscripts list the date, amount and payee/payer for all Dickens’s transactions but do not specify what the transactions were for.  That level of detail was unearthed by reference to census records, contemporary postal directories, genealogy websites and Dickens’s publishing contracts and correspondence.  With this information, the accounts for the years 1837-43 were prepared, and I set about interpreting them.

As one might expect, the accounts endorsed much of what had previously been written about Dickens, and filled in some gaps.  However, in some respects Dickens’s accounts contradict what has previously been understood about him.  Most significantly, the popular view of Dickens as a cautious money manager, haunted by his own childhood poverty, finds no support in his accounts.  Instead, there emerges a clear picture of a man with a good understanding of his personal finances, but a habit of spending lavishly on clothes, holidays and entertaining his friends, and repeatedly making extravagant life decisions beyond his means. He was a diligent accountant, but not a prudent manager.

At a time when £300 a year would pay for a small household with three servants, and a successful professional might earn £1,000, Dickens’s average annual income in 1837-43 exceeded £3,000.  But he spent even more than he earned, and never had money to spare; serious economising was never part of his financial planning.  Broadly, his cash flow strategy was: (i) negotiate the best advance even if it meant giving away profit share, (ii) maximise the payment period for creditors, (iii) persuade publishers to make payments earlier than agreed, (iv) borrow from publishers, (v) borrow from friends, but never (vi) borrow from the bank.  

The loans and advances that Dickens took from his publisher, Chapman & Hall, to supplement his income, created a burden that was hard to shake off.  His anxiety about it is clear from his correspondence, and he dissipated a great deal of emotional energy on it.  The publishers never enforced repayment of the loans, however, because Dickens was the jewel in their crown; they preferred to extend the payment period, trapping Dickens into continuing to write for them, since he could not transfer to another publisher without repaying the debts.  

There were also some pretty poor financial decisions.  Dickens borrowed heavily to re-acquire the copyright of Oliver, which was contracted to revert to him one year later anyway.  Careless arithmetic led him to over-project the profits from Master Humphrey’s Clock, which resulted in repayment of the Oliver loan taking far longer than intended.  Having created a financial tension by borrowing more than he could comfortably afford, Dickens exacerbated the position with an expensive house acquisition and a lengthy sabbatical.  He was financially out of his depth but spent freely, relying on his own future success.  It was exactly the Micawberish conduct that he so deplored in his father.  To keep up flamboyant appearances, Dickens took financial risks and would not curtail his spending.  His conduct was manifestly inconsistent with the fear of poverty that many writers have ascribed to him.  His behaviour displays more a dread of discovery and degradation, a sense of not belonging in the social echelon that he occupied, and a determination to live like a celebrity.

It was a fascinating study, which produced some intriguing results.  I am very excited to be taking the research further, with a PhD on how Dickens’s financial experiences are reflected in his writing.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com). My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

5 thoughts on “Dickens’s finances

  1. Warren and I were MA students together and I was always fascinated by his work, particularly given the popular notion that Dickens was generous to his wife in terms of maintenance once they had separated. It would be really interesting to see the percentage of his income that he was giving to his wife post 1858, and to analyse that in the context of what amount was usually provided by a husband to a wife he had separated from.

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    1. Deborah, it was a small percentage by today’s standards – the annual settlement was £600, which would have allowed Catherine a very comfortable middle class life, especially as she did not have to support any of her children financially. But it was only 5%-10% of Dickens’s income during 1858-70. I don’t know what was a normal provision.

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    2. What fascinated me about both of your research projects, Deborah and Warren, was how you brought your own professional experience and expertise into your research on Dickens. There is huge potential for new outlooks on Dickens by stepping outside the academy and calling on others with professional experience to give a unique insight into something which generations of academics might have missed!

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  2. “The remote inter-disciplinary frontier where literary biography meets accountancy” –Admirable! One could presumably compare Rosina Bulwer-Lytton’s maintenance percentage?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like Deborah, Warren’s research project drew on his own professional knowledge alongside his interest in Dickens. it was a happy union as the accounts have never been analysed in this way before (as I often told him, there is a lack of financial experts amongst Dickens academics!). He is now working on a PhD with the aim of publishing the full accounts, which promises to be an essential research tool in future Dickens studies.

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