Part of the appeal of Charles Lever's 1859 novel Davenport Dunn: A Man of Our Day for Phiz as well as for many of Lever's other readers at the time, aside from its more or less contemporary setting and allusions to recent events, must have been how much the author had drawn on the character of Mr. Merdle, the swindling financier of Dickens's previous novel, Little Dorrit (1855-57), as well as on the notorious Irish politician and confidence man John Sadleir (1814-56), whose duplicitous business practices at the height of the Railway Mania led directly to his committing suicide on Hampstead Heath.
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." — Fitzpatrick, 318.
Lever's ingenious protagonist, a tycoon banker of humble origins, has done well in the calamitous Hungry Forties through swindling his fellow countrymen. Dabbling in international politics at the start of the Crimean War by establishing the Anglo-French alliance against Russia, Dunn rises to the peak of British society. John Sutherland succinctly comments: "Lever handles the enigmatic character of the majestic criminal hero effectively" (172).
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]
As Lever commenced work on the 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, for Lever's son, Charley, had resigned his commission at the end of hostilities, but had not returned to his father in London.
Whereas most novelists introduce the protagonist in the first or second chapter, Charles 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 makes Dunn 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. From the text of the novel it would appear that Dunn was born about 1815, and was murdered in 1856. In contrast, the historical financier upon whom he was based, John Sadleir, was born in was born in 1813, and committed suicide on 17 February 1856. John Sadleir, like Lever's Dublin financier and political fixer, Davenport Dunn, has qualified as a solicitor. Sadleir took over a lucrative practice in Dublin. Like the fictional Dunn, the historical Sadleir, both an Irish financier and political figure, 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 — moreover, it had been Phiz's principle commission for the past two years.
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.
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 8 July 2019