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.

Part of the appeal of the Charles Lever story for Phiz, aside from its more or less contemporary setting, was probably how much the author had drawn on the character of the fictional Merdle, the master-swindler 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. Lever's ingenious protagonist, a tycoon banker, has done well in the calamitous Hungry Forties through swindling his fellow countrymen. Dabbling in international politics at the start of the Crimean War in terms of establishing the Anglo-French alliance against Russia, Dunn rises to the peak of British society. When his affairs begin to collapse, he prepares to abscond with whatever assets are fluid, but meets an untimely end at the hands of Irish rogue Grog Davis. Sutherland succinctly comments: "Lever handles the enigmatic character of the majestic criminal hero effectively" (172). Like Merdle, Lever's financier conducts his operation s on vast scale, and is courted and flattered by the leading members of society, although Dunn seems less anxious to please and is hardly, in reality, the dull, inept, common fellow that Dickens ultimately reveals Merdle to be. However, in addition to using Sadleir as a model, Dickens based Merdle to some extent on the Railway King of the Forties, George Hudson, whose finances collapsed in 1849.

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. Like the fictional Dunn, Irish financier and political figure John Sadleir 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 (December 1855-June 1857). Revealing Dunn through the eyes of other characters rather than through authorial description of his character and actions makes him, like Merdle, something of a cipher, and Lever was probably familiar with Dickens's duplicitous financier since Little Dorrit 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.

John Sadleir, like Davenport Dunn qualified, as a solicitor. Sadleir took over a lucrative practice in Dublin from his uncle. About 1846 he abandoned the law to enter Irish politics, and to join his brother John and their cousin, the younger James Scully, in the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank, which ultimately failed catastrophically. In 1847, Sadleir won election as a Member of Parliament for Carlow. Sadleir co-founded the Catholic Defence Association in 1851, and acted as one of the leading figures in the Independent Irish Party, which briefly held the balance of power in the House of Commons in 1852. Sadleir subsequently held a number of cabinet portfolios in the coalition government of Conservative Lord Aberdeen from 1852 through 1854. However, since he had promised his electors that he would not take such a government post, taking those cabinet portfolios enraged people back in Ireland, who never forgave him for what was seen as a shameless betrayal of his nationalist principles. He resigned his last ministerial position in 1854, when he was found guilty of being implicated in a plot to imprison a depositor of the Tipperary Bank because the individual in question had refused to vote for him.

To "be another Sadleir or Keogh" in the Irish political vocabulary over the next century meant being a political turncoat: the phrase was still in use in `Ireland as late as the 1950s.


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 [new edition typeset separately in 1872].

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

Last modified 25 March 2019