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Coins in Great Works of Literature

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Coins are such an intrinsic part of our lives and the team at the Royal Mint Museum have been leafing through their extensive library to find out how authors have used coins and money in their work.

Read on for some of our favourite and most interesting quotes and the coins that accompany them.

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In the classic tale, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens the generosity shown to a street urchin highlights Ebenezer Scrooges’ commitment to change and the life lessons taught by the spirits he has encountered.

Reverse 1861 Half Crown
“Hallo, my fine fellow!”
“Hallo!” returned the boy.
“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there?—Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy…”

“Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown!”

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Meanwhile, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman use coins in a footnote from their book Good Omens to give us a social commentary on Britishness.

“NOTE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE AND AMERICANS: One shilling = Five Pee. It helps to understand the antique finances of the Witchfinder Army if you know the original British monetary system:

Two farthings = One Ha’penny. Two ha’pennies = One Penny. Three pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and One Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.

The British resisted decimalized currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated.”

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In his memoirs Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt describes how, in the impoverished area of Limmerick during the depression of the 1930s, coins could make you feel liberated.

“Saturday night when you have a few shillings in your pocket is the most delicious night of the week.”

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As the title suggests, The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is a play that is chiefly concerned with money and trade. When his daughter elopes with some of his store of wealth, the character of Shylock goes as far as to equate her directly with money and it is unclear which he values more.

“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!”

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In The Salmon of Doubt a posthumously published volume of essays by Douglas Adams, he saw currency as something that is so ingrained in our society that we

don’t even notice it is there.

“We notice things that don’t work. We don’t notice things that do. We notice computers, we don’t notice pennies. We notice e-book readers, we don’t notice books.”

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The Bird Woman in P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins teaches us to use coins to help people rather than storing them in the bank and keeping them for yourself.

“She’s saying it! She’s saying it!” cried Jane, holding tight to herself for fear she would break in two with delight. And she was saying it. The Bird Woman was there and she was saying it. “Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag! Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag!”

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Some authors use coins as descriptors rather than literal objects. For example, in his novel All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr uses them to describe the sea.

“I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins.”

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In A Storm of Swords, from his Game of Thrones series, George R.R. Martin uses a coin to explain the duality of one of the great houses.

“Madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.”

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Arthur Conan Doyle uses coins as a plot device in The Man with the Twisted Lip. When a city businessman, Neville Sinclair, goes missing Sherlock Holmes is on the case and quickly finds there is more to the mystery than meets the eye.

“They hardly found on the mudbank what they had feared to find. It was Neville St. Clair’s coat, and not Neville St. Clair, which lay uncovered as the tide receded… Every pocket stuffed with pennies and halfpennies — 421 pennies, and 270 half-pennies. It was no wonder that it had not been swept away by the tide.”

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The Queen’s Nose by Dick King-Smith transforms an ordinary 50p into something magical.

“She held the coin in her left hand with the Queen’s head facing downward and put the tip of her right forefinger on that feminine-looking hand. She closed her eyes tight. She thought of a whole host of possible wishes and decided to start with something simple. At that moment she heard the car coming up the drive as the shoppers returned, and that made her think it would soon be lunchtime. She would have her favourite lunch!

“I wish,” said Harmony, “for fish fingers and baked beans and chips and tomato sauce,” and she rubbed hard.”

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The daring Richard Hannay, in The 39 steps by John Buchan, uses coins to get himself out of a tight spot and escape from his flat without being seen.

“I opened the front door, and there was my man, singling out cans from a bunch he carried and whistling through his teeth. He jumped a bit at the sight of me.

“Come in here a moment,” I said. “I want a word with you.” And I led him into the dining-room.

“I reckon you’re a bit of a sportsman,” I said, “and I want you to do me a service. Lend me your cap and overall for ten minutes, and here’s a sovereign for you,”

His eyes opened at the sight of the gold, and he grinned broadly. “Wot’s the gyme?” he asked

“A bet,” I said. “I haven’t time to explain, but to win it I’ve got to be a milkman for the next ten minutes. All you’ve got to do is to stay here till

I come back. You’ll be a bit late, but nobody will complain, and you’ll have that quid for yourself.”

“Right-o!” he said cheerily. “I ain’t the man to spoil a bit of sport. “Ere’s the rig, guv’nor.”

I stuck on his flat blue hat and his white overall, picked up the cans, banged my door, and went whistling downstairs. The porter at the foot told me to shut my jaw which sounded as if my make-up was adequate.”

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This quote from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island struck a chord with the Museum team.

“It was a strange collection, like Billy Bone’s hoard for the diversity of coinage, but so much larger and so much more varied that I think I never had more pleasure than in sorting them. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Georges and Louises, doubloons and double guineas and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe for the last hundred years, strange Oriental pieces stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web, round pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle, as if to wear them round your neck – nearly every variety of money in the world must, I think have found a place in that collection.”

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A penny for your thoughts…

What coins and money references can you find in the books that you are reading? Don’t forget to tell us your favourites by tagging us on social media.

To find out more about the Royal Mint Museum, click here.

If you want to see what historic coins we currently have to offer, click here.

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