Like many of my clients, I love reading. Whether it’s finance, history, politics, sport or fiction, I just love reading. It’s such a wonderful way to learn new things and to exposure yourself to new ideas.
In December each year I turn my mind to what I’d like to read over the Christmas break. Perhaps some pure escapism with Jack Reacher? A new history of the creation of the Federal Reserve from Roger Lowenstein? Or perhaps one of the 9 books Warren Buffett says every investor should read?
Each year I also invariably gaze over my book shelves and wonder whether it’s time to re-read some of the classics. Which got me wondering, what money lessons can we take from these wonderful works of literature?
Perhaps the greatest beginning to a novel involves financial advice. Over 200 years ago Jane Austin opened Pride and Prejudice with the immortal line:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Austin’s acclaimed novel goes on to show that there is a healthy dose of satire wrapped up in this comment on marriage, finances and class.
Every eligible man in Pride and Prejudice, whatever their character, is described in terms of how much they are worth. The lesser known second sentence of the novel goes on to explain that such eligible men are
“the rightful property of some one or the other of their daughters”
Money is central to the novel and Mrs Bennet’s life goal is to procure suitable husbands to provide financial security for her 5 daughters.
Lesson: A man is not a plan
The initially charismatic and well spoken Mr Wickham is revealed to be “imprudent and extravagant”, code for a womanising gambler and swindler. The youngest sister Lydia has the misfortune to fall head over heels for this bounder.
Elizabeth’s best friend, the ever pragmatic Charlotte, marries the clergyman, Mr Collins. Her choice is made “solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment” – this is a loveless transaction undertaken for self-interest. Indeed, she has a memorable line on this topic: “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance…It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life”.
Only the eldest sister Jane and the heroine Elizabeth marry for love. After much misunderstanding, Jane eventually marries Mr Bingley for love. Meantime Elizabeth spends much of the novel refusing to trade her independence for financial security and finally marries the incredibly wealthy Mr Darcy for love.
The key financial lessons from each situation is that Austin did not believe eligible men were the property of scheming daughters or that men with fortunes were in dire need of a wife. Fortunes didn’t drive happiness or security in Austin’s world; happiness, love and honesty did.
Pound of flesh
We all know what this term means but we may not know it comes from the classics. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice the scene in which the moneylender Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio for not paying a debt on time is one of his most memorable.
Lesson: If it sounds too good to be true…
When Antonio sought to borrow money, the terms seemed too good to be true. Shylock didn’t ask for interest on the loan, he just wanted his money re-paid on time and in full. However, the terms were explicit; non-repayment resulted in a loss of equal amount of debt to be paid in Antonio’s flesh.
Lesson: Read the small print
As it turns out, Antonio does not fully understand the semantic terms of his loan. This is a lesson that many investors with Storm Financial or agribusiness schemes could relate to in recent years.
In turn, semantics are Shylock’s undoing and Antonio’s savior when the heroine Portia argues Shylock can take his pound of flesh but only if he doesn’t spill any blood – “This bond doth give thee here not a jot of blood”.
As Christmas approaches, one novel that provides many important financial lessons is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Lesson: Money can’t buy happiness
The name of the lead character Ebenezer Scrooge has become synonymous with an attitude to finance. A miserly, selfish and thoughtless man with a great fortune finds himself beset by misery and loneliness.
By contrast, the Cratchit family faces financial destitution yet finds happiness spending time together and sharing their experiences – “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
There is clearly more to life than just money.
Lesson: We can change our situation if we want to
If we look at where we have come from, where we are currently at, and where we are heading and we don’t like what we see, like Scrooge we can change. Sometimes it’s only when we hit rock bottom either emotionally or financially that we feel able to take drastic steps to turn our lives around.
Scrooge took that leap and so can we – “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
If you are seeking out a good read this Christmas, why not consider the classics?
We wish you a happy, safe and merry Christmas with friends, family and loved ones. If you have any great book ideas to read over the Christmas break I’d love to hear them – personal recommendations are often the best way to learn about wonderful books .
This article opened with the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice and it ends with the famous closing line from my namesake in A Christmas Carol:
“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”