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05 January 2014

What the dickens was money worth in Dickens's day?

The inventor of Scrooge became the richest writer on the planet.
One of the fundamental courtesies of all good writing—so obvious that it is never stated in any of the how-to
manuals—is to get your important facts right. Obviously everyone makes minor mistakes from time to time, but facts which are central to the argument being put must be right. That is basic.
     So I was surprised to read a glaring error in today’s Financial Times, a paper I regard highly for its informational value—a term which includes accuracy. The article was an extremely interesting one about the attitude to money of novelists in the past, from Dostoeyvsky to Dickens. 
     George Eliot, we learn, was offered an advance for Romola of “£10,000 – about £6 million in our money”. Cool! Or “cool” until we read that in Jane Austen’s time—she was not interested in money because she did not need to earn it to live, unlike Dickens, Eliot and the others—the sum of £20,000 was “£1 million in our money”.
     This would mean that in about 1810 the pound was worth one twelfth of what it was worth  in the mid-nineteenth century. That is deflation on the grand scale. But the fact is that there was only a slight weakening in prices (due to the fact that the economy was growing faster than the money supply—because the pound was pegged to gold).
     So when the author of the piece says Dickens left £100,000 at his death, we do not know if this was £60 million in “our money” (on the George Eliot computation) or a mere £3 million (on the Jane Austen one). Since the Financial Times is a paper about money if it about anything, this is a serious mistake. It is a discourtesy to the reader since it assumes that we are too inattentive, or innumerate, to notice such glaring discrepancies in a relatively short piece.
    If “manners maketh man” then perhaps it could be said, at least in the journalistic world, that “accuracy maketh authors”. 

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