Financial crises, stock market crashes, and bankers’ nervous breakdowns are not new to this latest recession, nor were they new in the Great Depression of the 1920s. Stockbrokers’ suicides and money madness were even more familiar to the pages of Victorian newspapers than ours today. The public’s fascination with these kinds of crises both fed and was fed by an enormous volume of publication on the subject, spilling out of financial papers and journals, into mainstream newspapers, popular periodicals and fiction.
Two of the most famous swindlers in Victorian fiction are Dickens’ Mr Merdle from Little Dorrit, serialized from 1855 to 7 and Trollope’s Mr Melmotte from The Way We Live Now, serialized from 1874 to 5. Both men follow their detection with suicide rather than face public disgrace and imprisonment. They achieve vast wealth, using their standing in society to gain trust and high levels of investment. A good name was, and still is, vital to success as a swindler. Much publicising was done by word of mouth in private homes, the offices of the City, and the gentlemen’s clubs of the West End. What appeared to be a tip from a well-meaning friend could well turn out to be motivated by selfish gain, or even blackmail, as in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.
John Sadleir, a former MP, poisoned himself on Hampstead Heath in 1856 when an Irish bank he was running collapsed and his fraudulent financial practices were about to be revealed. Anthony Trollope’s Mr Melmotte in The Way We Live Now also dies by taking prussic acid, knowing that he is about to be arrested on fraud charges. Trollope writes that Melmotte may have even become temporarily insane under the strain of his financial responsibilities. Trollope spells out that in such cases, ‘surviving friends are of course anxious for a verdict of insanity, as in that case no further punishment is exacted’ (672). Although during the sufferer’s lifetime, madness in the family was a disgrace, cases of insane suicide could be condoned. Deliberate, clear-headed suicide, and the consequent burial in unconsecrated ground, was a far greater humiliation. Suicide resulting from madness provoked pity, and no punishment, so that ‘it can always be said afterwards that the poor man was mad’ (672). However, from a purely legal perspective, for Melmotte it could never be so. Trollope explains
‘let a Melmotte be found dead, with a bottle of prussic acid by his side – a man who has become horrid to the world because of his late iniquities… a wretch who has made himself odious to his friends… a brute who had got into the House of Commons by false pretences, and had disgraced the House by being drunk there – and of course, he will not be saved by a verdict of insanity from the cross roads, or whatever scornful grave may be allowed to those who have killed themselves with their wits about them’ (672).
Despite this verdict, and despite the brutal rationality of Melmotte’s character throughout the novel up to this point, following his death, it appears that on some level he may be deemed to have been of unsound mind. The financial burden appears to be so immense that to have borne it sanely seems impossible. Trollope writes,
‘it may be imagined, I think, that during that night he may have become as mad as any other wretch, have been driven as far beyond his powers of endurance as any other poor creature who ever at any time felt himself constrained to go… we none of us know what load we can bear, and what would break our backs. Melmotte’s back had been so utterly crushed that I almost think that he was mad enough to have justified a verdict of temporary insanity’ (673).
David Suchet as Mr Melmotte in the BBC’s adaptation of The Way We Live Now in 2001
Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit depicts the downfall of another swindler, Mr Merdle, who cuts his throat in public baths with a tortoiseshell penknife. However, it was not and is not only swindlers who experience the devastating effects of financial pressures on mental health. In July 2009 the suicide of a young stockbroker who worked for Deutsche Bank was reported. Fearing redundancy in the light of enormous cuts being made, and following an office prank, the twenty-four year old Oxford graduate jumped from the top floor of a fashionable London restaurant, wearing a designer suit and holding a glass of champagne.
Such suicides, reminiscent of bankers who jumped from Wall Street skyscrapers in 1929, and Melmotte’s real-life counterparts before that, warn against modern complacency. Time and again, Victorian literary and social history reveals parallels with and warnings for our own time, many of which are of too grave a nature to be confined to the academy.