Taking stock of Dickens on business

Christopher Werth Dec 24, 2012

Taking stock of Dickens on business

Christopher Werth Dec 24, 2012

These are the last days before Christmas. In the basement of this church in West London, a theater group rehearses a musical version of “A Christmas Carol” — Charles Dickens’ classic tale about a money-grubbing old miser named Scrooge. Dickens wrote the story as a critique of the greed and misery he saw in 19th century Britain.

Actor Tony Bell stars as Scrooge in the production.
 He says today, in this era of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, Dickens’ message still rings true.

I think that Dickens feels that capitalism breeds inequality,” says Bell.

Many believe it also gives rise to nefarious business practices and the kind of mass poverty that made life, well, Dickensian.

However, Sarah Skwire, a fellow at the Liberty Fund who writes about Dickens, says Dickens is often misinterpreted.

“We are often presented in Dickens with pictures of business at its very worst — with business as a force only for evil and destruction,” says Skwire. “But when we start to look at a wider range of his portraits of business, we get a very different picture.”

A positive picture. Skwire says unlike like other writers of the time — who wrote only about the upper classes — Dickens’ portrays characters who actually work for a living.

“Dickens shows us people from all levels of life working at all sorts of jobs,” says Skwire. “There’s just all of this commerce that’s going on all of the time.” 

Imagine a crowded market street in 19th century London with traders calling out their wares.

“We have street sweepers,” says Skwire, “and people who own bars and restaurants.” 

Along with poultry sellers and factory workers. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a political scientist at New York University and the author of “The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge.” 

He says Dickens was always torn between the poverty of the industrial era, and industrialization as a way out of poverty.

He certainly wanted to be anti-business,” says Bueno de Mesquita. “But we can’t help but notice that he seems to admire it.”

In fact, Dickens was a businessman himself. Florian Schweitzer of the Dickens Museum in London says the author was among the highest-paid writers of his day.

The interesting thing about the ‘Christmas Carol,’” says Schweitzer, “is Dickens profoundly believed that it would make a lot of money for himself.”

He says Dickens invested heavily in an expensive, illustrated edition of “A Christmas Carol.” Sure he wanted to change social norms around wealth and poverty, but he also thought the book would sell a lot of copies.
 In fact, Schweitzer says the production costs were too high.

And he ended up being out of pocket for writing ‘A Christmas Carol,’” says Schweitzer. 

Making Dickens, on this occasion at least, a worse businessman than Scrooge.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.