Guilty Money: The City of London in Victorian and Edwardian Culture, 1815-1914

Through boom and bust, the popular view of high finance has changed little, finds Howard Davies

May 21, 2009

When I chaired the judges for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, I wrote an article in the Financial Times in which I incautiously noted that almost none of the 110 novels submitted for the prize that year dealt with the world of business and finance in any but the most superficial way.

It seemed to me that that had been characteristic of the British novel for some time. I contrasted the position in the US, where a novelist like Tom Wolfe came to grips in a convincing way with the masters of the universe on Wall Street.

This modest holiday-season contribution to the Pink Pages earned me an avalanche of financial novels from authors saying I had completely ignored their contribution to the genre. Unfortunately, most of these novels were privately published. The authors acknowledged that agents and publishers thought there was little public interest in the City. That may change: when the 2010 lists come out, we shall see whether British authors have been inspired by the credit crisis to crack open Northern Rock or shred Fred.

British novelists have not always shied away from an engagement with finance, as Ranald Michie's entertaining Guilty Money explains. But Michie shares one thing in common with our aspiring City novelists: he found it hard to interest a publisher.

He complains that he faced hostility from funding bodies, publishers and fellow academics, all of whom thought that it was fruitless to try to map the cultural reflections of financial life in the 19th century.

Michie argues that to do so provides a useful sidelight on economic and financial history. I can see his point.

It is worth looking at how novelists saw the rise of London as a global financial centre: their attitudes both reflect popular views and inform them. But I can see the sceptics' arguments, too.

What Michie has produced is, for the most part, a series of plot summaries of 19th- and early 20th-century novels about business life and, particularly, about that peculiar mutation of business life that occurs in the square mile of the City of London. He tries to knit these summaries together with some brief connecting passages that chronicle the story of the rises and falls in the reputation of high finance in British society.

There are some interesting evolutions, as booms and busts (we are talking about life before Gordon Brown, of course) affected popular sentiment. Sometimes it was thought that the City was leading the country to war through its foreign entanglements. At other times, finance was fuelling prosperity. But Michie's essential conclusion is that, for the most part, cultural attitudes to the City were hostile. They were also often a complex mixture of incomprehension, envy, resentment and anti-Semitism.

Throughout the 19th century, finance suffered by comparison with manufacturing. In the anonymous Commercial Tales and Sketches from 1864, "it was Percy the Plodder that won praise, because he became a successful provincial manufacturer and a happily married man, whereas Geoffrey the Genius chose the City, where he enjoyed a spectacular but brief career that ended in bankruptcy and emigration".

What Guilty Money lacks in theory and theme, it compensates for in entertaining anecdote. Michie writes with a nice sense of irony, and while he is not heavy-handed or anachronistic in drawing parallels with the present day, the echoes are there to be heard.

In Psmith in the City, P.G. Wodehouse begins: "Nobody can be proud of the achievements of a bank." We are reminded that, in Three Men in a Boat, George "goes to sleep at a bank from ten to four each day, except Saturdays, when they wake him up and put him outside at two". We could wish that the Royal Bank of Scotland had adopted such practices: it would have got into less trouble.

Michie reminds us, too, of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, whose central figure was the banker Augustus Melmotte. Trollope notes that "in the City Mr Melmotte's name was worth any money, though his character was perhaps worth but little".

I shall most seek out an 1875 novel, Ye Vampires, written by an author mysteriously known as The Spectre. London appears as the City of Undone, whose stock exchange is called The Vortex. Eventually The Vortex goes down in flames - "a huge wave of retribution shot in one moment from its centre to a distance of many miles before its force was wholly expended".

A subsequent assault on Parliament led by Ralph and Beatrice Playfair results in the creation of a new publicly owned association to provide financial services around the country - a kind of post office bank, if you like, now actively being debated for the UK.

So we have been here before, both in reality and in imagination. Michie leads us down these historical byways with care and enthusiasm. The conclusions may not be surprising, but the journey is enjoyable.

Guilty Money: The City of London in Victorian and Edwardian Culture, 1815-1914

By Ranald C. Michie. Pickering & Chatto, 288pp, £60.00. ISBN 9781851968923. Published 1 February 2009.

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