"The man who is insensible of the power which money brings with it must be a dolt," according to the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope. Trollope also knew the misery that comes from the lack of money. He kept careful track of the financial rewards of his writing, as revealed in his autobiography, and his novels are full of the nitty-gritty of money. Plots hinge on the intricacies of a will (his own father was disinherited).
Moneylenders stalk his heroes, just as they did young Anthony when a £12 debt to his tailor turned into £200. Trollope's parents were not, like Charles Dickens's, familiar with the inside of a workhouse, but only because they fled the country when the bailiffs came knocking. Trollope also knew about negative equity. In the late 1860s, after retiring from the Post Office without a pension, he sold his country residence at a loss. Aware of financial scandals brewing at home and abroad, he set about house-hunting in London. Horrified at the prices, he was thoroughly cross and grumpy.
It was in this state of mind that Trollope wrote The Way We Live Now, a novel that pretty well describes the mess we are in today. The story follows the dealings of the mysterious foreign financier, Augustus Melmotte. Having fled Paris and Vienna, Melmotte comes to London, where "British freedom would alone allow him to enjoy, without persecution, the fruits of his industry". He becomes director of a bogus Mexican railway and the public flock to buy shares. At the time, "it seemed that there was but one virtue in the world, commercial enterprise," and Melmotte "was its prophet". His very breath was "taken for money".
Melmotte appoints to the board of directors several impoverished but titled youths to lend the scheme prestige and to ensure carte blanche in running his affairs. He trades on their timidity and ignorance, for only he understands "the game". Several of these wastrels, who spend all their time and money gambling at the Beargarden Club, begin to think the City might be "almost more exciting than whist or unlimited loo" - and perhaps easier. Even their mothers prefer that they learn to do their "gambling on the Exchange, or among the brokers, or in the purlieus of the Bank". But, after trying in vain to redeem his IOUs at the Beargarden in order to buy shares, one young buck, Sir Felix (like many a modern trader in mortgage-backed securities), whines: "I don't see what's the use of playing when this rubbish is shoved about the table."