Despite the high moral tone of last week, in which we agreed that enjoying your job and making some sort of positive contribution to sharing the planet were the important things in life, it cannot be denied that money comes in handy. Not always, of course: Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Utopia either have no need of the stuff or, in Thomas More’s satire, use gold for chamber pots and fetters. But unless you have the time and energy to set up a system based entirely upon barter, or to follow John Seymour’s stern advice on Self-Sufficiency to the back-breaking letter, enough money is a necessity.
Ah, ‘enough’. Dangerously slippery word, that: my ‘enough’ might be riches beyond your wildest dreams, or less than you pop on a horse for the Grand National. Clever old Dickens spotted the chameleon-like quality of the word when he named Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations, a book that revolves around money (as so much Dickens does). She lived, you will remember, at Satis House. Oh, the irony: Miss Havisham’s tragedy is never to be able to say ‘enough’ and have done with her bitterness and brooding. Justice and revenge, Dickens keeps trying to tell us, are like money: you have to accept that, while it would be great to have more, what you have is probably enough and you are better off living with what you have than hankering after what you cannot have.
But how rarely the heroes and heroines of literature settle for what they’ve got – which is nice of them, of course, as without their striving and questing we could kiss goodbye to plot. Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the chaps in the Bertram family (Mansfield Park as of course you know), and indeed our old friend R. Crusoe: they, and so many of their fictive chums, rush around the place, often spreading ruin and scattering ban as they go, motivated by the remorseless desire to accumulate dosh. (The ‘spreading ruin’ quotation, should it be on the tip of your tongue but just eluding you for the moment, is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Musical Instrument’. You may or may not be entertained to know that in the NorthernReader household, the opening line, read by others as ‘WHAT is he doing, the great god Pan’ with the emphasis very properly on the first syllable, is habitually rendered as the far more disapproving ‘What IS he doing, the great god Pan’. So much more fun). Contrary to Jane Austen’s hopes, the possession of a good fortune is rarely a guarantee of gorgeous eligibility. Dour old Darcy, Lady de Bourgh’s dreary daughter, self-pitying Willoughby and the ghastly Robert Ferrars make a sobering roll-call of what might be on offer when you marry for money . As my great-grandmother was apparently given to saying, don’t marry for money, marry for love; but only love where there’s money.
So are there any shining beacons of plutocracy out there on the pages of fiction? Not Ebenezer Scrooge, that’s for sure, nor Hard Times’s Josiah Bounderby (contender for the closely-fought title of Best Name in a Dickens Novel). We’re better off, in every sense, with J Washburn Stoker, millionaire father to one of Bertie Wooster’s fleeting fiancées. Or how about Bertie himself? We should perhaps not overlook the fact that shoals of young women make it their business to become engaged to him, despite for the most part judging him to be a work in progress rather than the answer to a maiden’s prayer. Could it be that his enormous bank balance has something to do with his attractiveness? One of the very many joys of reading PG Wodehouse, by the way lies in savouring his seemingly endless euphemisms and synonyms for being rich. But it is noticeable how, with the exception of the occasional dog-biscuit millionaire, money is very rarely a commodity that Wodehouse’s characters knuckle down and actually earn. A bit different from the hard and uncertain road to riches travelled by Defoe’s Moll Flanders. If you should happen not to
have read The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, well, what a treat you have in store. This is Defoe’s masterpiece, and it is packed with pungent social criticism. But don’t worry, it’s packed with sex and death as well and is altogether a rollicking good yarn as well as a searing indictment of how hard life can be if you should happen not to be born into a cocoon of wealth and privilege.
Children’s literature tends not to take to the moral high ground about the love of money and the evil thereof, unless we count A Christmas Carol – and I think we can, because, not least thanks to sterling work by the Muppets, it is a sad childhood that does not know the tale of Dicken’s great miser. Perhaps we should see if the Muppets fancy having a go at Silas Marner. In George Eliot’s terrific parable, Marner the linen weaver learns the hard way that gold is just stuff and that what we actually need to earn, and to spend, is love.
Goodness me, how uplifting. Time to come back to earth with a favourite short poem by Franklin P Adams:
The rich man has his motor-car,
His country and his town estate.
He smokes a fifty-cent cigar
And jeers at Fate.
He frivols through the livelong day,
He knows not Poverty, her pinch.
His lot seems light, his heart seems gay;
He has a cinch.