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.