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Bagehot

The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian
Narrated by: Jonathan Cowley
Length: 11 hrs and 34 mins
4 out of 5 stars (8 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

During the upheavals of 2007-9, the chairman of the Federal Reserve had the name of a Victorian icon on the tip of his tongue: Walter Bagehot. Banker, man of letters, inventor of the Treasury bill, and author of Lombard Street, the still-canonical guide to stopping a run on the banks, Bagehot prescribed the doctrines that - decades later - inspired the radical responses to the world's worst financial crises.

Born in the small market town of Langport, just after the Panic of 1825 swept across England, Bagehot followed in his father's footsteps and took a position at the local family bank - but his influence on financial matters would soon spread far beyond the county of Somerset. Persuasive and precocious, he came to hold sway in political circles, making high-profile friends, including William Gladstone - and enemies, such as Lord Overstone and Benjamin Disraeli. As a prolific essayist on wide-ranging topics, Bagehot won the admiration of Matthew Arnold and Woodrow Wilson, and delighted in paradox. He was also a misogynist, and while he opposed slavery, he misjudged Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. As editor of the Economist, he offered astute commentary on the financial issues of his day, and his name lives on in an eponymous weekly column. He has been called "the Greatest Victorian."

©2019 James Grant (P)2019 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

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I wanted to like it

The British accent reading was awful. The writing was not much better. I expected to like it because I like his Barron's writing. This wasn't good.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

Near perfect, but requires an attention span

Many have heard of Bagehot, a few of the big events of his times, but here is a deeper look. It is is no dry story, but it will be for some.

Patient, attentive reading, like patient, attentive handling of investment capital, reaches dimensions and payoffs not otherwise found. This is an odd book, being a bio mashed up with a finance book. There is a bit of wandering but always in service of enlightenment. Stretches of personal tales and then finance, even if transitioning pretty seamlessly, can lend an odd tempo. But for me, the investment pays. Bagehot's life, like any rich life, is a sort of hologram where everything interlaces. This is far more entertaining than a textbook droning to deliver the same content: a spoonful of sugar, as they say. But not really all that sugary, more restrained, Victorian. Once I get the idiom, it is irresistible, like the sheathed sexuality of earlier 20th century movie humor. The literacy and courtesy in these people's personal letters are something to behold -- a lost art. This book hits spot on many existing passions of mine, which are surely not everybody's. I never realized just how very English my (Southern California middle class Episcopal) family upbringing was. I love to hear the Mother Tongue, written and read with such felicity. Like any good art, there are many layers to be found by many listeners. This is bright crackling English prose, rare in business history. The author imbibed the whole scene, and breathes it out with surpassing grace. My apologies to those who are unfit for this book, and will find it snobby and indecipherable. Twits have plenty of their twitterverse already. Bagehot surely could be wordy -- extremely -- and as depicted here was plenty human and capable of arrogance and error (but usually so sheathed! This too is a Victorian art.).

About 6 1/2 to 7 hours in comes, for me, the biggest payoff: in the wake of the collapse of the Overend Gurney firm, and the ensuing panic, comes a great debate about the role of a national, central bank. I have never witnessed so lucid a description of banking and central banking and all stakeholders, as here, most particularly in a sharp exchange among England's brightest. Bagehot starts into this in an all-too-human way, as the journalist hedging and straddling the matter, but finally brings things brilliantly into focus. The rest is finance history, as Bagehot's quotes came off the lips of the west's leaders post-2008. We can argue about the results post-2008, but nowhere will you find such a splendid explanation of what is, deep down, driving everybody, and at stake for everybody, in the configuration of a banking system, and its backstops. The original speakers and writers were brilliant, and the author does the whole matter (and the avid listener) great justice.

This balanced depiction of the man and his fumblings is to the author's credit; no phony one-dimensional heroes inhabit this book. Nineteenth century finance is suddenly illuminated for me, timelessly, so it lights up plenty happening now. More audibles from Grant, please!

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James Grant at his best

I have been a long-time reader of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, and have always found his arguments compelling, even when I disagree with him.

This biography is thoughtful, evenhanded, and witty take on Walter Bagehot (1826–1877), a 19th-century British banker, editor-in-chief of the Economist, and a skilled economic thinker.

Grant assionately admires Bagehot as a “virtuoso writer on money and banking” whose output was “eclectic, fearless, aphoristic, prolific” and whose ideas remain respected today.

At the same time, Grant underscores Bagehot's flaws (hauteur, forgetful of mistakes and an unsucessful politician). Bagehot was born into a provincial banking dynasty; he went into one of the family businesses, the regional bank Stuckey’s.

It is a measure of Grant as a writter that Bagehot comes off charismatic as he is reputed to have been in life.