Is Dickens’ miser quite the villainous, unsympathetic character he is painted?
In Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol, Mr Ebenezer Scrooge is described as a miserly, tight fisted fellow and certainly on a personal level, it is had to argue with that description. Is Scrooge quite the old scroat he first seems to be, or does he possess touches of wisdom that are worthy of proper consideration in the twenty first century and might he be a more sympathetic character than first impressions might suggest?
Leaving aside for a moment Scrooge’s apparently personal grasping, penny-pinching nature, he seems to have been a good, practical businessman. It would appear that his business affairs were dealt with in an efficient (in relation to the era) manner and he enforced his contracts rigorously. He understood his own business well and did not, apparently, try to interfere where he had no expertise, as he noted to the gentlemen collecting for the poor who visited his office saying “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not interfere in other people’s”.
Most people of today would agree with that sentimean and object to interference in their affairs, weather personal or professional, and in the case of professional, interference can make the difference between profit and loss and sometimes staying in business.
We must also bear in mind that as a businessman of his time, it was Scrooge’s own personal fortune that was at stake if his business did not provide a return. By contrast, today’s money lenders, principally the banks, risk their customers’ money not their own and the banks’ directors frequently seem to be rewarded with bonus payments even when their performance has been poor; Scrooge would be out of pocket.
There is no suggestion that Scrooge was dishonest. By contrast, there have been numerous twenty first century news reports about the potentially illegal practices of our modern bankers. When they are honest, today’s money lenders load their loans with an array of charges for such things as administration, money transfer and, seemingly, anything else they can think of that might wring another penny out of the borrower. The money lenders of Scrooge’s time, and so I assume Scrooge too, charge an interest rate and nothing more; their loans were simple to understand.
Scrooge was a hard nosed businessman, with high acumen in his profession which made his commercial enterprise very successful. How is this different to our modern financial institutions when they seek to enforce a debt, perhaps by repossession of a family home? Scrooge held people to their contracts; I see nothing wrong with that. Today’s money lenders, principally the banks, do exactly the same.
Scrooge had to enforce his contracts personally, today’s banks do it with a computer generated letter. I find nothing wrong with holding someone to a loan agreement they have signed, with a bank or other financial institution then or today.
Scrooge also had at least one piece of wisdom on a personal level, as well as business, when we consider how many people today are determined to have a bigger, better Christmas celebration than they can actually afford. At Christmas time, even people who manage their money carefully throughout the rest of the year can get carried away with the persuasion to spend; spend on presents, spend on food, spend on drink.
The cost of gifts in particular seems to get higher every year, outstripping the general inflation rate. Advertisers deliberately try to make us feel ‘Scrooge like’ if we don’t ‘love’ enough to buy a big, expensive gift for someone. Scrooge noted to his nephew “What’s Christmas-time to you but a time for paying bills without money”. In modern parlance, we might equate this with a ‘credit-card Christmas’. Is it really a good idea to spend so much money on a single day that we spend months paying for it?
Scrooge’s nephew says of Christmas, and most people answering on a personal level would probably agree, that “it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket”, however that does not make it a good idea to go into debt for it.
What might Scrooge have made of twenty first century commercial practices for Christmas, that constantly strive to persuade us to dig deeper into our pockets and spend more, offering us bigger loans and more credit if necessary to get our money? Scrooge was thought a miser but today faceless corporations who behave the same way call it efficiency. It might be dressed up with glossy advertising and ‘have it now’ slogans but businesses make significant profit from people who get into debt. I rather think the old miser might have approved, don’t you?