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Micawber on Insolvency

posted by Buce

For lawyers, the big Dickens novel is supposed to be Bleak House, but for bankruptcy lawyers, I think the choice should be Little Dorrit. You will remember: that is the one about William Dorrit, the “Father of the Marshelsea,” famous for being famous, in debtor’s prison for longer than anyone can remember.

But in fact, debt was a recurrent theme for Dickens; it pops up throughout his novels. Indeed, perhaps the most famous Dickensian debtor is not William Dorrit but Mr. Micawber, great friend of the eponymous author of David Copperfield.  Even people who have never cracked a Dickens novel will remember W. C. Fields saying   

Annual income twenty pounds,

annual expenditure

nineteen nineteen six,

result happiness.

Annual income twenty pounds,

annual expenditure

twenty pounds ought and six,

result misery.


It’s an imperishable scene and a priceless bit of character comedy but it overlooks a hard fact: Micawber is a calamity. He’s a drifter and a dreamer. He has a wife to support, and a disastrous knack for fathering children. David, first their tenant, becomes their protector, adult before his time. Micawber is always waiting for something to turn up. For the most part, nothing does turn up; Micawber winds up in debtor’s prison, and the best thing he can find to do with his time is to compose “a petition to the House of Commons, praying for an alteration in the law of imprisonment for debt.” Copperfield explains:      

There was a club in the prison, in which Mr. Micawber, as a gentleman, was a great authority. Mr. Micawber had stated his idea of this petition to the club, and the club had strongly approved of the same. Wherefore Mr. Micawber (who was a thoroughly good-natured man, and as active a creature about everything but his own affairs as ever existed, and never so happy as when he was busy about something that could never be of any profit to him) set to work at the petition, invented it, engrossed it on an immense sheet of paper, spread it out on a table., and appointed a time for all the club, and all within the walls if they chose, to come up to his room and sign it. 

Dickens readers apparently find this all touching and loveable: apparently the book remains about the best-selling of all Dickens novels. It is not entirely clear just what Dickens himself thinks. It is he who sketches out all this sunny innocence; yet it is he who lays out the evidence that Micawber, for those around him, is pretty much of a train wreck. Dickens does also mention “the boot-maker” who

had declared in open court that he bore [Micawber] no malice, but that when money was owing to him he liked to be paid. He said he thought it was human nature. 

Human nature indeed. Compare with Micawber’s human nature at work as he undertakes to discharge an obligation to his young friend Traddles:

'One thing more I have to do, before this separation is complete, and that is to perform an act of justice. My friend Mr. Thomas Traddles has, on two several occasions, ‘put his name,’ if I may use a common expression, to bills of exchange for my accommodation. On the first occasion Mr. Thomas Traddles was left—let me say, in short, in the lurch. The fulfillment of the second has not yet arrived. The amount of the first obligation,’ here Mr. Micawber carefully referred to papers, ‘was, I believe, twenty-three, four, nine and a half; of the second, according to my entry of that transactions, eighteen, six, two. These sums, united, make a total, if my calculation is correct, amounting to forty-one, ten, eleven and a half. My friend Copperfield will perhaps do me the favour to check that total?’

I did so and found it correct. 

‘To leave this metropolis,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘and my friend Mr. Thomas Traddles, and I now hold in my hand, a document, which accomplishes the desired object.  I beg to hand to my friend Mr. Thomas Traddles my I O U for forty-one, ten, eleven and a half, and I am happy to recover my moral dignity, and to know that I can once more walk erect before my fellow man!’ 

With this introduction (which greatly affected him), Mr. Micawber placed his I O U in the hands of Traddles, and said he wished him will in every relation of life. I am persuaded, not only that this was quite the same to Mr. Micawber as paying the money, but that Traddles himself hardly knew the difference until he had time to think about it. 

 It’s something to reflect that Micawber’s cheerful, calamitous innocence who has more to do with public attitudes towards debt than any other character in literature.

Fn.: Dickens never was much good at endings. After carrying him through one scrape after another, there wasn’t much to do with Micawber, so (in desperation?) Dickens sent him to the antipodes and made him a judge. The reader is left to draw whatever moral he sees fit.


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