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Phiz's emblematic Engraved Title-page (April 1859). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Charles Lever's Davenport Dunn: A Man of Our Day (1857-59), which takes place after the Great Famine and the Crimean War, stand out as one of the finest novels about a swindling financier who rises to the heights of society before his fall. Unlike other Victorian works with similar subjects, such as Thomas Carlyle’s “Hudson’s Statue,” Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Davenport Dunn seems ambivalent about the its hard-working, yet dishonest, main character. As an Irishman, Lever seems to have found himself attracted to the notion of this working-class upstart whose sheer cunning and determination takes him from peasant origins through the legal profession and British politics, to the upper echelons of British society before, like John Sadleir (1814-56), the historical figure upon whom Lever modelled him, he suffers an untimely death. Significantly, Lever has his dubious hero murdered by an Irish confidence man instead of mirroring Sadleir's suicide on the outskirts of London.

Although Lever begins with detailed descriptions of the high life of European aristocracy taking the water cure at Lake Como, he elicits considerable sympathy for those excluded by birth or fortune from this magic social circle. As Silvana Colella has pointed out,

In the social imaginary of Lever’s novel, the world is sharply divided between those who are "included" or entitled by birth, and the "excluded", scrambling for a seat at the table. As one character, the inveterate gambler, Grog Davies, observes in a moment of extreme bitterness: “the fellows that are born to a good station and a good property are all fair and honest, if they like it; the rest of the world must be rogues, whether they like it or not” (II 91). Lever represents economic progress in Ireland as an unstoppable onward march, a self-propelled force of history. [12]

Much the appeal of Lever's narrative about the financial bubble of the 1850s and the Crimean War derives from fully developed character of the grand swindler, who differs greatly from the unidimensional figure of Merdle in Little Dorrit (1855-57). Lever's readers would have recognised the Dickens connection, as well as the real-life original of Dunn, the notorious Irish politician and confidence man John Sadleir, whose duplicitous business practices at the height of the Railway Mania led directly to his suicide on Hampstead Heath.

According to W. J. Fitzpatrick’s 1901 biography of Lever,

This book effectively utilized some leading incidents in the life of John Sadleir, Junior Lord of the Treasury, who, after a wonderful career, committed suicide on Hampstead Heath. The Athenaeum pronounced it "Lever's best book, one sufficiently full to satisfy a schoolboy's love for adventure, yet strong enough in portrait-painting to attract graver men." [318]

Lever's ingenious protagonist, a tycoon banker of humble origins, does well in the calamitous Hungry Forties by swindling his fellow countrymen. Dabbling in international politics at the start of the Crimean War when he establishes the Anglo-French alliance against Russia, Dunn rises to the peak of British society. John Sutherland succinctly understates the adroitness with which the novelist develops or rather unfolds his titular character: "Lever handles the enigmatic character of the majestic criminal hero effectively" (172), although "criminal" does not accurately reflect the reader's complex responses to Dunn's career.

Such a strategy, having British readers identify themselves with an insider who sees himself as an outsider and is psychologically driven to re-visit his humble origins periodically, necessarily meant that the novelist had to depart from the facts of the case since Sadleir was hardly, in the final analysis, an admirable figure: "In the career and character of Davenport Dunn, Lever did not follow Sadleir in detail, but embodied various impression of the frenzied expansion of business which had struck him so forcibly during his London visit" (Stevenson, 223). Colella sheds some light on the surname of the eponymous character, overlooking, however, the somewhat pretentious "Davenport" that Dunn's father shortens to "Davy":

And because readers actually see Dunn at work, nearly every time he appears on stage, the income derived from these multiple activities could legitimately be perceived as rightly earned, more so than the inherited income of the various rentiers (Lords, Dukes, Earls and such likes) the novel parades. Having built a complex financial empire, comprising several companies, a joint-stock bank, and various land development projects, Dunn and his secretary have time for little else. It is remarkable how often the narrator itemises what Dunn is doing, whether it is meeting with clients (I 174), sending out important dispatches or receiving them (I 425-27), going through a monumental mass of correspondence, networking with politicians (II 213-24) or appeasing journalists. As his surname suggests, Dunn is a hard-working personage who gets things "done". [16]

The independently minded heroine, Sybella Kellett, is a link to his previous novels, for she is not merely a skilled equestrian but also a determined negotiator and British patriot. In addition to conventional scenes in which she ministers to her ailing father, Lever has her exert herself as the organizer of the Glengariff real estate development scheme, and even rally the allied troops at a crucial battle in the Crimea. "In return for her heroic exertions, Sybella gains wealth, love and inclusion in the upper spheres of society. Her story is one of unhampered social progress, facilitated by her open-minded attitude towards speculation and change" (Colella, 17). It should have come as no surprise to readers of the final serial instalment that she married Charley Conway, the recently recognised heir to the title "Viscount Lackington." Such poetic justice, unfortunately, attends the fates of neither Annesley Beecher nor Davenport Dunn as the former loses his virtuous wife, Lizzy Davis, while the latter is murdered by Lizzy's ruthless father, Grog, although he presents his action before the courts as justifiable homicide (although the reader knows better), and serves a minimal sentence. Lever in his conclusions of the multiple plot-lines refuses to be wholly governed by the Victorian spirit of Nemesis.

As Lever commenced work in 1857 on his new serial novel for Chapman and Hall, the British press had been full of stories recently about the catastrophic fall and suicide of the financial wizard and the subsequent financial scandal. The affair had come to light just as the Crimean War ended. The novelist may have also been assimilating into his fiction a personal crisis, since Lever's son, Charley, had resigned his commission at the end of hostilities, but had not returned to his father in London. Perhaps it is more than coincidence that Lever's youthful protagonist, the real hero of the story, is the brilliant young horseman Charley Conway.

Whereas most novelists introduce the protagonist in the first or second chapter, Lever seems to have deferred brining Davenport Dunn on stage as long as possible, building up suspense by having various characters discuss his life and achievements. Lever describes Dunn as "outsider" who became an "insider" in everybody's mind but his own: driven to escape his lowly origins, Dunn is an Anglo-Irish prodigy who grew up in Dublin, spent time as an overseer on a Jamaican plantation, emigrated to America, and then returned to his native Dublin and set up practice as a solicitor. The novel suggests that Dunn was born about 1815 and was murdered in 1856. Sadleir, the financier upon whom Lever based Dunn, was born in 1813 and committed suicide on 17 February 1856. Sadleir, like Lever's financier, speculator, and political fixer, qualified as a solicitor and then took over a lucrative practice in Dublin. Like the fictional Dunn, the historical Sadleir was both a financier and politician; he became notorious in his native land as a political turncoat, and served as the model for such literary speculators who come to ruin as Merdle in Dickens's Little Dorrit (1857). Revealing Dunn indirectly, through the eyes of other characters (particularly the high society figures at Lake Como) as well as through authorial description of Dunn's character and actions, makes him, like Dickens's Merdle, at least initially something of a cipher, and Lever was probably familiar with Dickens's duplicitous financier since Little Dorrit (December 1855-June 1857) had already gone through all twenty serial numbers before the first number of Davenport Dunn appeared in July 1857.

The main villain is a combination of all the recent notorious financial cheats. He is an Irish amplification of Redpath, Sadleir, Colonel Waugh, and half a dozen others. There is nothing very original in selecting such a subject, and all the merit is in the handling. ["Davenport Dunn," 505]

The Saturday Review, which lauded the new novel as Lever's most adult work yet, noted how Lever's treatment of his serious rogue differed from the typical speculator in other contemporaneous accounts, including such literary works as Little Dorrit:

The "local colouring" added to the picture by the author's choice to include Dunn's father in the cast of characters; the quality of Lever's realism ("Lever knows that it is not only the great results, but the furniture, the daily decoration, of success that strikes the reader," 505); and the lack of "sermonising" which the Saturday seemed particularly keen to praise: "there is very little morality in Davenport Dunn and still less sentimentalism. The moral of the tale simply consists in giving us vaguely to understand that the adventures of the two adventurers are of the wrong sort. In a general kind of way, speculation is discountenanced" (506). All in all, Davenport Dunn pleased Victorian reviewers for the ways in which Lever solicited new interest around a subject deemed unoriginal. [Colella, p. 12]

Phiz’s Illustrations

Another part of the book's popular appeal, especially in terms of its serial instalments, were the forty-four illustrations (a significant number of which are dark plates resembling black-and-white paintings rather than conventional engravings) of Dickens's usual illustrator, Phiz, or Hablot Knight Browne, who, however, is at his most effective when describing atmospheric scenes and cavalry action in the Crimean War.

Related Material

References

Colella, Silvana. "Speculation and Social Progress: Financial and Narrative Bubbles in Charles Lever's Davenport Dunn." Estudios Irlandeses 14 (March 2019-Feb. 2020): pp. 12-27.

"Davenport Dunn." The Examiner. 10 April 1858: 228.

"Davenport Dunn." The Saturday Review. 7.182 (1859): 505-6.

Fitzpatrick, W. J. The Life of Charles Lever. London: Downey, 1901.

Lever, Charles. Davenport Dunn: A Man of Our Day. Illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne). London: Chapman and Hall, 1859, rpt. 1872.

Lever, Charles. Davenport Dunn: A Man of Our Day. Illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne) with 44 illustrations. London: George Routledge, 1877.

Stevenson, Lionel. Dr. Quicksilver: The Life of Charles Lever. New York: Russell & Russell, 1939, rpt. 1969.

Sutherland, John. "Davenport Dunn." The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford U. P., 1989. Page 172.


Last modified 9 July 2019