Over recent weeks I have been watching the BBC’s serialisation of the novel by Charles Dickens originally published in 1855, Little Dorrit, adapted by Andrew Davies. It was wonderful timing. Just as the financier Bernard Madoff was seen in the TV series to have been a complete fraud, so at exactly the same time the real-life Merdle was arrested in New York – or was that the other way round?
Dickens was partly motivated in writing the book by what he saw as the unacceptable relationship between the key financial institutions and their directors in the City of London and the government, which appeared unwilling or unable to regulate the sector and protect investors and ordinary citizens. And this theme was repeated a couple of decades later by Anthony Trollope in his great novel, The Way We Live Now, in which the financier Melmotte is also found to have built up a fraudulent house of cards.
Both novels describe developments in economics and business which are remarkably close to what we have recently been witnessing in 2008. There are no doubt aspects of the current global financial crisis that are new, or are peculiar to our own era. But the basic issues are not new, and have been around before. The trick now is to ensure that, some 100 years from now, there will not be another re-run of such events. Or at least that the world is better prepared for it.
But maybe another conclusion to draw (as was done also in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper) is that the great Victorian novels can teach us a lot about society, trade and politics.