Howard Jacobson: Our bankers could learn a thing or two from the Victorians – namely honour

They had the moral refinement to do away with themselves when the game was up
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Been thinking about the word honour and wondering why it is so little in vogue. I suppose "honour killings" haven't exactly worked in the word's favour, nor the doings of Their Honours on the Bench or in the House of Lords. And where the word is so badly tarnished, what chance is there for the concept?

We were hammered with honour at school, not in classes on social inclusion or personal integrity or whatever they vainly teach now that the horse has bolted, but in the course of studying English literature, French, Latin, history, indeed in the course of studying just about everything except physical education, the practice of which did no one any honour. They taught us about honour because without some comprehension of it we would not have understood the codes that governed other cultures in other places and in other times. What made heroes. What constituted a fall. Whence ignominy and shame. Impossible to read Racine without grasping what honour meant to his characters, or Shakespeare, come to that. "If I lose my honour, I lose myself," Antony declares prepatory to his losing both. But there would be no tragedy in the losing of honour were there no grandeur in the having it.

I can't remember if it was our English teacher or our French teacher who told us to read Montaigne's essay Of the Recompenses or Rewards of Honour. Maybe it was our woodwork teacher. In those days the whole school pulled together to give its pupils a humane education, and never mind if that sometimes entailed bending us over the work-bench and beating us with an unplaned length of two-by-one. "Make a man of you," my father told me when I complained to him about it. By which I now take him to have meant that to be demeaned was just another way of being taught to value honour.

Montaigne, anyway, however we came by him, stiffened us against many a delusion, including the delusion that we could understand him. But this I did take away after many nights of struggle – that no honour was to be less esteemed than the conferring of riches, for "with riches a man doth reward the service of a groome, the diligence of a messenger, the hopping of a dancer, the tricks of a vaulter, the breath of a lawyer", and, he might have gone on, the counterfeits of a banker. But my scorn is not the equal of his. "The hopping of a dancer" – was it ever better argued, in a phrase, not to value what one did by the money one was paid for doing it?

Thus does literature teach morality by the back door. Not by precept but by letting language be the judge. And one day when our scurvy age is analysed by historians it will be said of us that we were immoral in proportion as we were illiterate, the crisis in our schools preceding the crisis in our banks.

Anyone who watched Little Dorrit on telly recently, or, better still, who is reading it at the moment – and no one should not be reading Little Dorrit at the moment – will be mindful that the Victorians too, though better educated where education reached, threw up finance-sector scoundrels every bit the equals of our own. But at least they had the moral refinement a) to do away with themselves when the game was up, and b) to do so in a manner that reflected the depth of their dishonour. "Could you lend me a penknife?" Mr Merdle asks Fanny Dorrit, shortly before cutting his throat with it.

Dickens's Merdle, like Trollope's Melmotte, is thought to be modelled on John Sadleir, described by the editor of The Bankers' Magazine of the time as "one of the greatest, if not the greatest swindler that this or any other country has produced". We need not go into the details of that swindle here – the misappropriation of title deeds, forged conveyances, embezzled trust assets, etc. We have similar sorry stories of our own to tell. But Sadleir's suicide is worth lingering over. Hampstead Heath was where he chose to do it. Somewhere high and windy where his horrid deeds could be blown in every eye. Hampstead Heath on a freezing February night, with prussic acid and a case of razor blades which I imagine to have borne the monogram JS. In the event, he didn't need the razor blades. The cold, the acid and ignominy did the job just fine. The following morning he was discovered on the heath as stiff and inconsequential as a dead rabbit.

"I cannot live," he wrote in one of several suicide notes. "I have ruined too many. I could not live and see their agony." In another he wrote, "I blame no one but attribute all to my own infamous villainy. I cannot live to see the tortures I inflict upon others."

There is much to be said for the age in which we live. Improved sanitation, better dentists, mobile phones, Australian wine, eight-inch stilettos (the heels, I mean, not the gangland blades), but do you not think it would have been wonderful to be alive when men had the courage to call their misdeeds by their proper name, when they had a vocabulary adequate not only to their evil but their shame. What words do we have with which to feel self-disapprobation, let alone express it? Reader, what need of a word where we don't see a fault? "Infamous villainy"? Come now, that is not the language of hire and reward. Let's just agree the knighthoods, the honorary doctorates, the bonuses and the pensions and have done.

Sadleir's friends – I know: explain that – tried to have a verdict of temporary insanity brought in so that he would not be buried at the crossroads. The coroner's jury thought differently. That man could not be mad, they thought, who apprehended with such vividness the harm he had done to others and the dishonour he had brought upon himself. Does it not make you want to be a Victorian? Does their reasoning not make our world a madhouse?

In his fictional account, Dickens no more spares those taken in by Merdle than he spares Merdle himself. We bestow honour after honour on nobodies and then marvel when those turn out to be the only conceptions of honour the nobodies possess. Without doubt the dishonour is ours too. But we have only inflicted torture on ourselves. We are fools, not villains.

As for those who took us in, we at least owe them the courtesy of a dirty penknife when they ask for it.

As if.