Yes, 1875. In his novel, The Way We Live Now, Trollope presents Mr. Auguste Melmotte, a thorough-going fraud and swindler who, for a brief period, takes hold of English finance and politics. The following excerpts require no comment.
The chief crime laid to his charge was connected with the ruin of some great continental assurance company, as to which it was said that he had so managed it as to leave it utterly stranded, with an enormous fortune of his own.
The belief naturally to be deduced from such statements, nay, the unavoidable conviction on the minds—of, at any rate, the Conservative newspapers—was that Mr Melmotte had accumulated an immense fortune, and that he had never robbed any shareholder of a shilling.
“Couldn’t he draw it a little milder?” Lord Alfred made his reply almost in a whisper. “If you ask me, I don’t think he could. If you got him down and trampled on him, you might make him mild. I don’t think there’s any other way.” “You couldn’t speak to him, then?” “Not unless I did it with a horsewhip.”
Melmotte was not the first vulgar man whom the Conservatives had taken by the hand, and patted on the back, and told that he was a god.
Rumours, therefore, of his past frauds, rumour also as to the instability of his presumed fortune, were as current as those which declared him to be by far the richest man in England.
“You think Melmotte will turn out a failure.” “A failure! Of course he’s a failure, whether rich or poor;—a miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end,—too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”
“And yet these leaders of the fashion know,—at any rate they believe,—that he is what he is because he has been a swindler greater than other swindlers. What follows as a natural consequence? Men reconcile themselves to swindling. Though they themselves mean to be honest, dishonesty of itself is no longer odious to them. Then there comes the jealousy that others should be growing rich with the approval of all the world,—and the natural aptitude to do what all the world approves. It seems to me that the existence of a Melmotte is not compatible with a wholesome state of things in general.”
“Of course Mr Melmotte is not the sort of gentleman whom you have been accustomed to regard as a fitting member for a Conservative constituency. But the country is changing.” “It’s going to the dogs, I think;—about as fast as it can go.”
Perhaps the most remarkable circumstance in the career of this remarkable man was the fact that he came almost to believe in himself.
Melmotte had been aware that in his life, as it opened itself out to him, he might come to terrible destruction. He had not always thought, or even hoped, that he would be as he was now, so exalted as to be allowed to entertain the very biggest ones of the earth; but the greatness had grown upon him,—and so had the danger.
Very much might be suspected. Something might be found out. But the task of unravelling it all would not be easy.
With the means which would still be at his command, let the worse come to the worst, he could make a strong fight. When a man’s frauds have been enormous there is a certain safety in their very diversity and proportions.
He read Alf’s speech, and consoled himself with thinking that Mr Alf had not dared to make new accusations against him. All that about Hamburg and Vienna and Paris was as old as the hills, and availed nothing. His whole candidature had been carried in the face of that.
Of course he had committed forgery,—of course he had committed robbery. That, indeed, was nothing, for he had been cheating and forging and stealing all his life. Of course he was in danger of almost immediate detection and punishment. He hardly hoped that the evil day would be very much longer protracted, and yet he enjoyed his triumph. Whatever they might do, quick as they might be, they could hardly prevent his taking his seat in the House of Commons. Then if they sent him to penal servitude for life, they would have to say that they had so treated the member for Westminster!
He never read. Thinking was altogether beyond him. And he had never done a day’s work in his life. He could lie in bed. He could eat and drink. He could smoke and sit idle. He could play cards; and could amuse himself with women,—the lower the culture of the women, the better the amusement. Beyond these things the world had nothing for him.
There was much that he was ashamed of,—many a little act which recurred to him vividly in this solitary hour as a thing to be repented of with inner sackcloth and ashes. But never once, not for a moment, did it occur to him that he should repent of the fraud in which his whole life had been passed. No idea ever crossed his mind of what might have been the result had he lived the life of an honest man.
Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life, and had so become a part of his blood and bones that even in this extremity of his misery he made no question within himself as to his right judgment in regard to them.
Not to cheat, not to be a scoundrel, not to live more luxuriously than others by cheating more brilliantly, was a condition of things to which his mind had never turned itself.