‘Trollope reminds us that there will always be bubbles, boom and bust, swindlers and honest men who reconcile themselves to swindling’

“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.”

To add insult to injury, Sir Felix discovers a fellow with an ace up his sleeve, literally, but the others refuse to believe it, for they “would infinitely rather be cheated than suspect any one of their own set of cheating them”. This is also the creed of the City: “Unanimity is the very soul of these things,” says Melmotte. Society is riding on personal credibility and financial credit. Melmotte, mortgaged to the hilt, understands “the nature of credit, how strong it is – as the air – to buoy you up; how slight it is – as a mere vapour – when roughly touched.” Inevitably, the stock market crash comes, the credit crunch hits, and Melmotte’s railway stocks are worth as little as Sir Felix’s IOUs.

The Way We Live Now reminds us that there will always be bubbles, boom and bust, swindlers, and also honest men who, Trollope explains, “reconcile themselves to swindling”. There will always be mystifying commodities like Mexican railways, dotcoms and derivatives. Occasionally, there will even appear in our midst an attractive, gun-toting lady from west of the Rockies, like the hero’s nemesis, Mrs Hurtle.

One might call Trollope, a keen observer of human nature present at the birth of our modern financial system, an early behavioural economist. He would recognise in our swindled (and swindling) bankers the poor gullible habitués of the much-lamented Beargarden, the club which offered so little propriety and so few “beastly rules”. “Dear old place!” Lord Nidderdale sighs, “I always felt it was too good to last. I fancy it doesn’t do to make things too easy,” for, “by George, before you know where you are, you find yourself among a lot of blackguards.”

But Trollope was at heart an optimist. “I think that men on the whole do live better lives than they did a hundred years ago,” with more justice and charity abroad, says a kindly clergyman in The Way We Live Now. Barack Obama’s election to the White House in 2008 is proof that humankind continues to advance, slowly but surely. In the words of Plantagenet Palliser, Trollope’s champion of the decimal coinage, “a desire for wealth is the source of all progress. Civilisation comes from what men call greed. Let your mercenary tendencies be combined with honesty and they cannot take you astray.” Of course, greed is the easy part. As Lord Nidderdale says, “If one wants to keep one’s self straight, one has to work hard at it, one way or the other. I suppose it all comes from the fall of Adam.”

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