Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Charles Lever, Davenport Dunn: a Man of Our Day (1859)

I read a first edition of this novel I found in a West Country junk shop: the binding was falling off, but the text and especially the splendid illustrations (all by Phiz) are in perfect nick. It's available in several of places online.

Dunn is a financier (based on John Sadleir), and general bigwig: a man of no birth, who by financial wizardry of various sorts rises to a remarkable preeminence: as the novel opens, members of the aristocracy from across Europe (but especially Ireland and England, the two main focuses of the book) wait upon him hoping either to borrow his money or else to utilize his enormous influence with the government of the day. He is involved in ‘the action of the Encumbered Estates Court’ [71] by which the Whig government disposes of a number of hostile members of the Irish aristocracy by forcing sales of their mortgaged estates, often (the novel tells us) at a loss, to more favorably inclined landowners.

Dunn has grand plans: to finance a tunnel through the Italian alps, or the development of a Western Irish bay into a plush high-class tourist resort. But more to the point, according to Lever, he plans and schemes to avenge the slights visited upon him as a poor charity-school lad by the grandees of the day. One such family he has, indirectly, reduced to poverty. Another—Lord Lackington, and his wastrel younger brother Annesley Beecher—are facing a challenge to the legitimacy of their title. Dunn holds the papers that proves Lackington’s peerage actually belongs to a poor Welsh chap called Conway, who is fighting heroically in the Crimea during the novel, despite the fact that the conflict had previously cost him his right arm. Annesley is, at the same time, caught in the machinations of an unscrupulous card-sharp and race-course haunter (‘Leg’ is the term, according to Lever) called Grog Davies. When Lackington dies childless, making Annesley Viscount Lackington, Grog manages to keep the news from him (they’re at a German spa) long enough to persuade him to marry his, Grog’s, daughter.

It is, like all the Lever novels I have read, too slackly constructed: the style a little too discursively prolix, the subplots sketchily handled (dropped in and then forgotten), and the oirishry and the horsey stuff are both tediously over-indulged. The scene ranges widely across Europe without ever, quite establishing a rounded mis-en-scène. It is marred by a more-unignorable-than-usual anti-Semitism. Chapter 47 (title: ‘Lazarus Stein, Geldwechsler’) which takes Beecher into the den of a German Jewish money-lender, is particularly offensive; and the plot also hinges upon Grog Davis’ realization, near the end, that Dunn’s right-hand-man Simpson Hankes was originally ‘Simeon the Jew’, a fact he is prepared to betray his master to keep secret.

Nevertheless there is an enormous amount that is really fascinating in this novel. It is, at root, about the bankruptcy of the British aristocracy, both in a literal sense—the old guard losing their material position in the Encumbered Estates Court, for instance—and in the moral and social sense. Lackington is a vainglorious and adulterous idiot; Beecher a dolt; the old Earl of Glengariff (who hopes Dunn will fund the development of his Irish estate as a high-class watering hole) a fool. None of them could even pretend to take a role as actual or symbolic leaders of the nation. Instead of rank, then, the country is now run by money.

Now by the end of the novel, Lever’s representation of this state of affairs falls back upon the standard Victorian novelistic line: financiers are evil, ‘credit’ (‘the lathe-and-plaster edifice we dignify with the name of Credit’, 668) an illusion, it will all end in tears—he becomes, that is to say, another Merdle from Little Dorrit, or Melmotte from The Way We Live Now. It’s all, at the end, very SubPrime and Credit Crunch:

When the crash comes, it will be in less than a month from this day, the world will discover that they're done to the tune of between three and four millions sterling, and I defy the best accountant that ever stepped to trace out where the frauds originated, whether it was the Railways smashed the Mines, the Mines that ruined the Great Ossory, the Great Ossory that dipped the Drainage, or the rainage that swamped the Glengariff, not to speak of all the incidental confusion about estates never paid for, and sums advanced on mock mortgage, together with cancelled scrip reissued, preference shares circulated before the current ones, and dock warrants for goods that never existed. And that ain't all," continued Hankes, to whom the attentive eagerness of Grog's manner vouched for the interest his narrative excited, "that ain't all; but there isn't a class nor condition in life, from the peer to the poorest laboring-man, that he hasn't in some way involved in his rogueries, and made him almost a partner in the success. Each speculation being dependent for its solvency on the ruin of some other, Ossory will hate Glengariff, Drainage detest Mines, Railways curse Patent Fuel, and so on. I’ll give the Equity Court and the Bankrupt Commissioners fifty years and they'll not wind up the concern." [668]
But somewhere about the half-way point of the novel it looks like Lever is about to do something much more interesting with this theme. It reads, actually, very presciently—because, of course, rank was on the way out as a way of structuring British society, and money was on the way in. Dunn’s various investments and activities have indeed brought prosperity

The old feudalism that had linked the fate of a starving people with the fortunes of a ruined gentry was to be extinguished at once, and a great experiment tried. Was Ireland to be more governable in prosperity than in adversity? … Davenport Dunn saw the hesitation of the moment, and offered himself at once to solver the difficulty. [71]
Lever has no moral authority against which to contrast this new regime of money, except—like Tennyson in Maud—the Crimean War; and like Tennyson in Maud that’s a very problematic textual manoeuvre. On the one hand, Conway’s various heroic exploits do mark him out as meriting the title to which, in law, he is revealed as being entitled (Viscount Lackington), and lead one of the female characters to a very Maud-like outburst:

“Are we really the nation of shopkeepers that France calls us? Have we no pride save in successful bargaining? No glory save in growing rich? Is money-getting so close to the nation’s heart that whatever retards or delays its hoardings savours of misfortune? [475]
But at the same time, Lever is perfectly clear that the war in the Crimea is a pointless sort of affair, and being badly mismanaged to boot (chapt 73 begins with a story about how ‘seventy thousand shoes and other like indispensables for an army much in want’ are sent out to Balaklava, but then, thanks to ‘red tapery’, sent on to Constantinople where they ‘remained till the conclusion of the war, when the shoes were sold to the Russians’ [638]). On the other hand, his account of Dunn’s skill with credit, the benefits he brings, his understanding of the importance of confidence and wealth-generation, all sounds, to modern ears, genuinely praiseworthy.

A few oddities. The crooked clergyman ‘Holy Paul’ (that's him getting jabbed by Russians in the frontispiece, below) persuades Davis that no matter how much money he makes he will never be accepted into society. He might join a respectable London club, like Brookes: ‘well, you are to all intents, as much a member as his Grace there, or the noble Marquis. … The men at the newspapers look up, perhaps, but they look away immediately … the group at the window talks on too; the only thing noticeable is that nobody talks to you.’ When Grog D., furious, says he wouldn’t stand for it, Paul reminds him there’d be nothing he could do:
There’s nothing so universally detested as the man that makes a “row”; witness the horror all well-bred people feel at associated with Americans, they’re never sure how it’s to end. [569]
Then there’s this reference, which I frankly don’t understand: chapter 57 starts with an account of the process of developing Glengariff into an Irish tourist resort. Then the narrator says:

The imaginative literature of speculation—industrial fiction it might be called—has reached a very high development in our day. [467]
‘Speculation’, there, presumably in the sense of financial speculation; and its literature being (as it were) prospecti, newspaper accounts etc. Still: ‘industrial’?

Two Napoleon III moments: it is represented as characteristic that the flashy, credit-rich (but actually fraudulent) financier Dunn should have a personal relationship with the French Prince-Emperor: here’s Dunn’s London drawing-room:

The walls, of a very pale green, displayed to advantage a few choice pictures—Italian scenes by Turner, a Cuyp or two, and a Mieris—… A clever statuette of the French Emperor, a present graciously bestowed by himself, stood on a console of malachite. [541-2]
Then again, Grog Davies persuades the noble-born Beecher to marry his no-blood daughter in part by laying the example of Napoleon III before him: ‘What was the wisest thing Louis Napoleon ever did? His marriage. Do you mark that he was always following his uncle’s footsteps in all his other policy; he saw that his only mistake was in looking out for a high match, and, like a shrewd fellow, he said: “I have station, rank, power, and money enough for two…’ [444-45]


Paul McAuley said...

'Industrial fiction' - possibly a reference to the railway mania of the decade prior to the novel's publication? In which speculators frantically bought into companies that generally collapsed or evaporated before an inch of rail was laid - their shares and prospecti were in many cases elaborately fraudulent fictions...

Adam Roberts said...

That sounds right. 'Industrial', then, in the sense that it was churned out on an industrial scale?

Paul McAuley said...

Parliament received sixty-six applications to build new railways in 1844 - someone was certainly being industrious...

dmwebb said...

Anothet aspect altogether of this book - it was written in Florence, where Lever spent much of his time, and dedicated, just before he left the city in 1859, to Lord Normanby, who had been the British Minister there from 1853-58. As it happens Lever does not make much use of the Florentine or Tuscan background in this particular novel, which he does in a number of others, but in his descriptions of British society around Lake Como he includes a reference to a villa which cannot be reached by road - possibly the one now owned by Richard Branson or some other luminary?

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