A fair number of journalists have mentioned the odd parallelism of the fall of the House of Merdle in Little Dorrit, shown on Masterpiece Theatre in April, and the real-life fall of the House of Bernard Madoff. In both cases, a man from the lower classes worked his way up by making money, year after year, for other people. His Midas touch allowed him to appear to be selective about who he allowed to join his funds, thus increasing his own power. He kept himself small, never seeming to forget his original position, never seeming to exploit his success. When it turned out that the only person he had really made rich was himself, Charles Dickens’s Merdle commits suicide at his men’s club. Madoff, by contrast, will probably hang around long enough in court for us to begin to feel sorry for him, as we have for Brooke Astor’s son Anthony Marshall.
In the BBC’s The Way We Live Now, adapted from the Anthony Trollope novel, the stock market charlatan is another M, Melmotte, but he shows all the signs of chicanery and bad breeding from the start. As Melmotte David Suchet (a.k.a. Hercule Poirot) liberally chews the scenery and hunks of meat, his poor table manners standing in for a raft of other abuses of social norms. What’s odd is that everyone continues to do business with him while holding their noses, even our hero, Paul Montague. There’s a lack of subtlety to the miniseries, which I suspect is reflective of the tone of the book. Trollope is a satirist, while Dickens aims to hold a glass to society. Thus Merdle is more believable, as well as closer to reality, than the vampiric Melmotte.
Melmotte also eventually commits suicide, but we don’t really believe a love of English society, a hankering to build a really ugly McMansion at Pickering Park (ala the Russian moguls in Greenwich, CT), would have kept him from running away again once the jig was up. He tricked them in Vienna, he tricked them in Paris, and just moved on. If he had really wanted to pass as an English gentleman, as Merdle did, or as an American one, as Madoff did, he would have learned better manners and not lorded it over the impoverished upper classes. The Way We Live Now would have been to head straight to Liverpool, and board ship. Starting over in New York seems all too logical, whether in 1870 or 2009.