Thursday, February 4, 2010

Word of the Week - Debt

Debt: a sum of money owed
Owing money and the amount owed is big news at the moment, from bankers and developers to mortgage default and credit cards, debt looms large in the national psyche. How is debt treated in literature?
We all have an image of the artist starving in his garret but what about authors, how do they fare? Historically debt has nipped at the toes of authors, Daniel Defoe went bankrupt in 1692 owing a whopping £17,000 and Samuel Johnson was arrested for debt. John Cleland finished 'Fanny Hill' while incarcerated in the Fleet Prison for owing a more modest, but by the standard of the times a not inconsiderable, £840 and Walter Scott's publishing house foundered on the rock of £120,000 of debt in 1826.
The ability to borrow relied on your standing ie your social and moral position, not just your finances. Debt encompassed therefore not just financial but moral and social obligations. Colin Burrows for his article 'The Borrowers'
points out that
'Stories of debt could touch on almost any aspect of human relationships,from friendship to commerce.'
Debt allows the author to explore the tensions and conflicts that can arise between those who owe and those to whom money (or other obligations) are owed. Probably the best known example of an author exploring these issues is Charles Dickens. In 1824, when Dickens was 12, his father was imprisoned in Marshalsea prison for debt. It is said that this experience led directly to 'Little Dorrit' which was a direct attack on the practice of imprisonment for debt (abolished in the England in 1869). Throughout Dickens' fiction there are figures that survive by borrowing from others with varying degrees of venality examples include Mr Micawber in 'David Copperfield and Harold Skimpole in 'Bleak House'.
Usury, another facet of borrowing and debt, is the lending of money at high interest rates. It wasn't always thus, it was originally just the practice of charging interest on loans but it's meaning has evolved over time. The church has since early times taken the view that usury is sinful and the practice grew of economically coercing those considered outside the normal professions to collect rents and interests on behalf of landlords. Thus the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' who has to convert to Christianity and forsake usury before he can be redeemed. Dante reserves a special place for usurers in his 'Divine Comedy' on the seventh circle of hell along with the blasphemers and sodomites!
A change occurred in 1545 when Henry VIII signed into law an Act of Parliament that allowed the charging of interest on monies lent. With the formation of the Bank of England in 1694 the link between social standing and social ties and debt began to unravel and with it the fertile ground for authors to explore social and other connections through the medium of debt. The separation of debt from it's social and moral aspects into a purely financial transaction (generally) between strangers is perhaps why debt is not used as a medium to explore social issues anymore. It remains however a plot device, the debt of money to a drug dealer or the obligations owed to the mafia don. As Burrows points out literature does explore issues around money but these issues are about 'disconnected individuals rather than society as a whole.'

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