In Telemachus, the first chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the three young men are eating breakfast and have to pay the old woman delivering milk. The business of paying her is a wonderful brief scene, capturing both the realistic detail of the time and defining one of the characters.
Haines said to her:
— Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?
Stephen filled again the three cups.
— Bill, sir? she said, halting. Well, it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling. That’s a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.
Buck Mulligan sighed and, having filled his mouth with a crust thickly buttered on both sides, stretched forth his legs and began to search his trouser pockets.
— Pay up and look pleasant, Haines said to him, smiling.
Stephen filled a third cup, a spoonful of tea colouring faintly the thick rich milk. Buck Mulligan brought up a florin, twisted it round in his fingers and cried:
— A miracle!
He passed it along the table towards the old woman.
Just following her arithmetic is a minor feat for the modern reader. “Well, it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling. That’s a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.”
In the predecimal U.K., 12 pence (d.) equalled one shilling (s.). Filling in some of details that she omitted in her quick calculation …
“Well, it’s seven mornings (that I’ve delivered) a pint (each morning). At twopence (per pint) is … (doing the sums aloud) seven twos is a shilling and twopence over … and these three mornings a quart at fourpence (per quart) is three quarts … is a shilling. That’s a shilling (for the 3 quarts) and one and two (for the 7 pints) is two and two, sir.”
Or, using numbers. First the pints, 7*2 = 14 = 1s. 2d. Then the quarts, 3*4 = 12 = 1s. And overall, 1s. 2d. + 1s. = 2s. 2d.
Her brief thinking-out-loud is pitch perfect, realistically capturing the old woman’s voice. I certainly think I can hear her when I read it.
And then there is the particular coin that Buck Mulligan found in his pocket, a florin, worth two shillings. Not just any coin, not two shilling pieces, not a half-crown. But a florin. The Royal Mint describes the florin:
The silver florin was introduced in 1849 as a concession to enthusiasts for a decimal system of coinage, being one-tenth of a pound in value. It … was about the same size as Dutch and Austrian florins current at that time.
Its first issue aroused public indignation owing to the omission of the words DEI GRATIA and FIDEI DEFENSOR from Queen Victoria’s titles, the coin thereby commonly being known as the Godless or Graceless florin. This omission was soon corrected and the florin proved to be a useful addition to the silver circulation.
Money and coins figure prominently in Ulysses, as you might reasonably expect for a book about daily life in 1904 Dublin. But the florin appears only a few times, and fittingly with a “Godless” fellow like Buck Mulligan. (A florin also shows up, with similar symbolism, in Joyce’s short story, “Araby.”)
A final note on Buck’s remark, “It’s a miracle.” In the first, obvious sense, Buck means that it’s a great surprise that there is any money at all in the pockets of an indigent spendthrift like himself. But, in a second sense, Buck, the “mocker,” is making a godless thing into something sacred and holy, just as he does in the book’s opening scene when he makes his morning shave into the ceremony of the eucharist. It’s a minor touch, perhaps only an inference, but that’s Joyce’s accomplishment: 782 pages, and in almost every sentence in a deeper allusive meaning.