Mr. Merdle gives the Sparklers a call. (See page 729.) — Book the Second, "Riches," Chapter 24, "The Evening of a Long Day." 9.4 cm high by 14.2 vignetted, facing p. 721. Fin-de-siécle illustrator Harry Furniss's re-interpretation of the original serial illustration of the suicidal Merdle visiting his stepson and daughter-in-law to borrow the implement with which he will do himself in — a mere penknife, a suitable tool if one considers his Sadleir-like forgeries. [Commentary continued below.]

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

Passage Realized

"My only anxiety is," said Fanny,"that Mrs. General should not get anything."

"She won't get anything," said Mr. Merdle.

Fanny was delighted to hear him express the opinion. Mr. Merdle, after taking another gaze into the depths of his hat as if he thought he saw something at the bottom, rubbed his hair and slowly appended to his last remark the confirmatory words, "Oh dear no. No. Not she. Not likely."

As the topic seemed exhausted, and Mr Merdle too, Fanny inquired if he were going to take up Mrs. Merdle and the carriage in his way home?

"No," he answered; "I shall go by the shortest way, and leave Mrs. Merdle to —" here he looked all over the palms of both his hands as if he were telling his own fortune — "to take care of herself. I dare say she'll manage to do it."

"Probably," said Fanny.

There was then a long silence; during which, Mrs. Sparkler, lying back on her sofa again, shut her eyes and raised her eyebrows in her former retirement from mundane affairs.

"But, however," said Mr. Merdle, "I am equally detaining you and myself. I thought I'd give you a call, you know."

"Charmed, I am sure," said Fanny.

"So I am off," added Mr. Merdle, getting up. "Could you lend me a penknife?"

It was an odd thing, Fanny smilingly observed, for her who could seldom prevail upon herself even to write a letter, to lend to a man of such vast business as Mr. Merdle.

"Isn't it?" Mr. Merdle acquiesced; "but I want one; and I know you have got several little wedding keepsakes about, with scissors and tweezers and such things in them. You shall have it back to-morrow."

"Edmund," said Mrs. Sparkler, "open (now, very carefully, I beg and beseech, for you are so very awkward) the mother of pearl box on my little table there, and give Mr. Merdle the mother of pearl penknife."

"Thank you," said Mr. Merdle; "but if you have got one with a darker handle, I think I should prefer one with a darker handle."


"Thank you," said Mr. Merdle; "yes. I think I should prefer tortoise-shell." — Book the Second, "Riches," Chapter 24, "The Evening of a Long Day," p. 729-730.


The Merdle subplot once again demonstrates the shakiness and instability of British society, and Merdle's suicide and financial collapse parallel the fate of Mrs. Clennam and her mansion, which is also her house of business. The timing of the chapter is significant: three months after the deaths of the Dorrit brothers in Italy, and after the marriage of Fanny Dorrit to the obtuse Edmund Sparkler, son of Mrs. Merdle by her first marriage. Self-assured, convinced of her place in London's social hierarchy, and utterly indolent in the Furniss illustration, Fanny is pregnant — although the illustrator does not reinforce the text on this point. She and her husband receive an unexpected visitor, the somewhat distracted banker, Mr. Merdle, who (oddly enough) asks to borrow a pen-knife without any explanation. Although Dickens's is a portrait of a man on the verge of ruin and suicide, Phiz's interpretation of the financier is unvarnished and totally lacking in caricature, whereas Furniss depicts the failed "prop" of London high society as merely a desiccated, balding man in an oversized topcoat who will now take "the shortest way," a desperate man, a mere shell, who seems to have had the life-force sucked out of him.

Dickens's descriptions of Merdle are highly explicit, amounting to verbal portraiture: "He was a reserved man, with a broad, overhanging, watchful head, . . . and a somewhat uneasy expression about his coat-cuffs, as if they were in his confidence, and reasons for being anxious to hide his hands" (I: 21, "Mr. Merdle's Complaint"). But Furniss has chosen to depict Merdle as an aged wreck rather than a bourgeois in healthy middle-age. And in no respect does Furniss's version of Merdle physically resemble the nattily dressed, middle-aged financier named John Sadleir (1814-1856) upon whom Dickens based his portrait of a corrupt capitalist, but by 1910 the swindler's case had been long out of the popular mind.

Pertinent illustrations in two other editions, 1867 and 1910

Above: Eytinge, Junior's dual study of the proud aristocrat Mr. Tite Barnacle and the undistinguished Member of Parliament, Mr. Merdle, in Book One, Chapter 12, The Merdle Party (1867). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Above: Phiz's April 1857 realisation of the scene at the Sparklers', Mr. Merdle becomes a Borrower. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


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Last modified 5 May 2016