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It’s the week in which the government presents its budget to and for the nation, a plan for spending which is also a plan of activity. For most of us, in the domestic sphere of a household budget, the numbers are smaller, while their ramifications can loom much larger. These novels offer portraits of happiness and misery which are directly related to personal finances, and the ability to manage them.
· Wilkins Micawber, in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, is a poor man in optimistic expectation of future riches, and foolishly prepared to take on present debt against those imagined riches. The advice he gives to David – and does not take himself – has become known in the realm of personal finance as The Micawber Principle: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
· Financial greed and the excesses of the 1980s are the subject of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, in which Sherman McCoy is the self-proclaimed Master of the Universe as a bond trader on Wall Street, New York.
· Leonard Bast’s precarious existence teeters just at the edge of the abyss, in E M Forster’s Howards End, the victim of a class system which leaves him always underfed in mind and body, despite his cravings.
· Peggy and Greta think about money all the time – how to earn it, how to spend it – as they learn to live sober in an indifferent capitalist society in Pip Adam’s Nothing to See.
· The wonders of compound interest are combined with time travel to boost personal finances in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, turning small amounts into a future fortune.
· Lady Elliot ran a household of moderation and economy which kept her husband living within his income in Jane Austen’s Persuasion; after her death, Sir Walter Elliot’s vanity and extravagance leads him to constantly exceed it, to the detriment of his family.
· Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is the first book of three in the fictional biography of Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII whose job it was to fund every royal whim, but whose economic reach and financial deal-making ultimately failed to protect him from the wrath of his sovereign.
· John Self is a man from a humble background who spends too much and ends up in enormous debt in Money: A Suicide Note, by Martin Amis.