The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture 1740-1914 2003 364 p
I noticed a few weeks back as part of the discussion about childcare funding that the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has suggested that instead of big business being asked to pay a 1.5% levy, workers could be offered a HECS-style loan for childcare. Not only do we put ourselves into HECS debt for the training to get a job, it seems, but we wade even further into ‘HECS-style’ debt for childcare to ensure that we can keep working to pay off that original HECS debt. In a home-owner society like middle-Australia, it’s almost taken for granted that there will be a mortgage, but it’s becoming the new normal for rising generations to have an extra debt as well- that little ol’ HECS debt, bubbling away in the background.
I realized after reading Margot Finn’s book The Character of Credit, however, that the universality of indebtedness might not be a recent thing. Instead, as she demonstrates so ably, debt was interwoven into the networks and relationships in British society from top to bottom. They weren’t borrowing from banks: they were borrowing from each other, and the relationship was personal. In deciding if someone’s personal worth, you’d check out his or her clothes, marital relations, spending patterns and perceived social status- and the people who were lending to you would be doing the same thing.
The book has three parts. In the first, Finn begins by examining the treatment of debt in the 19th century novel and as you might imagine, Dickens and Trollope get a good airing, but many others as well- in fact, once you’re alert to it, you see these relationships of debt and obligation everywhere. She explores a wide array of exchange activities: instrumental gift giving, customary retail sociability (where people of means would intentionally only pay their accounts once a year, often impoverishing the humble shoptrader in the process), reliance on unwritten debt agreements and purchasing by people (i.e. women) who did not have legal agency. She then moves onto autobiographical accounts and diaries, which largely support the view put forward by the novelists that the webs of overlapping indebtedness ran right throughout society from top to bottom.
In Part Two, she turns to institutional and governmental records to examine the changing history of imprisonment for debt. Indebtedness was seen as misfortune, not a moral failing, and the debtors’ prison was not so much a punishment as a place of asylum for the debtor from the duress being placed on him by his creditors. Many of the people there were of relatively high status: it wasn’t worth pursuing a debtor who had nothing. Just as Dickens showed us with the Marshalsea in Little Dorritt, there was a flow of people and goods in and out of the prison which was, indeed, a sanctuary. The prisoners there literally ran the prison, taking responsibility for conditions and behaviours- and get this! they even levied fines on people who left the toilet seat up in the water closet!!!
In Part Three she traces the change in attitude in the 1840s as debt came to be seen as fraud, not misfortune, and the implications for punishment. The summary small-claims courts were established to support this changed conception, and were marked out from the other courts in that married women were allowed to appear and give evidence. In this chapter she draws on legal cases and records from tradesmen’s protection associations.
The book covers 1740-1914, and so much of the material in this last chapter took me beyond my own period of interest (i.e. up to 1845). It was this ‘modern’ view of debt from 1842 onwards that my own judge, Judge Willis, was wanting to adopt, and it very much fitted in with his campaign of ‘sifting to the bottom’ of financial impropriety. I’d read in several places where he expressed a wish for the English system, and now I understand why.
There’s a very detailed, informed and nuanced review of the book here which takes some issue with the arguments raised. I lack the knowledge to give anything other than an impressionistic review. I admire the way that this beautifully written book combines a close reading of the novels she has chosen in the first section, with a confident use of legal documentation in the second and third sections. There would be few writers, I suspect, who could combine the literary and the legal so well.