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 by 14.2 cm, vignetted, facing XII, 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.

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 Illustrated: Mr. Merdle Borrows a Penknife

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

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

"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 u "Could you lend me a penknife?" [Book the Second, "Riches," Chapter 24, "The Evening of a Long Day," 729-30: the original wording of the caption has been emphasized]


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 both 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 financial 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).]

Above: Phiz's April 1857 realisation of the scene at the Sparklers', Mr. Merdle becomes a Borrower.


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Created 5 May 2016

Last modified 29 January 2020