“Directly people expect to make a large interest, their judgment seems to desert them.”
With all the recent financial doings afoot, I found myself lingering on memories of reading Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond–a lesser-known novella from W.M. Thackeray (1811-1863). While it lacks the scope and the intense character study of Thackeray’s great social novel Vanity Fair, nonetheless this slim volume is a delightful, witty read, still highly relevant, and it’s well worth catching. It’s impossible to read this little 19th century gem without recognising its wisdom–it is, after all, still relevant here in the 21st century.
Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond is a morality tale. It was published in 1841–early in Thackeray’s literary career, and it first appeared in magazine installments. The novella has subsequently been dwarfed by Thackeray’s more famous and popular books (Barry Lyndon, Vanity Fair, The History of Henry Esmond, Pendennis). Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond was written during a rather unhappy time in the author’s short life, and it contains some autobiographical elements. Thackeray’s wife Isabella was going mad (and would be locked up for decades), and his second daughter died shortly after her birth. The latter incident finds its way into the story as does Thackeray’s unfortunate, yet memorable, brush with debtor’s prison,
Samuel–the story’s hero–is a clerk at the Independent West Diddlesex Fire and Insurance Company in London, and he’s the story’s narrator. If you think the name ‘Samuel Titmarsh’ hints at naiveté and mild-mannered behaviour, then you’d be right. It’s easy to pick up the clue that there’s something really fishy afoot with the Diddlesex Company, and we get it before Titmarsh does, although the story is narrated as a retrospective, and at several points in the tale we are told events that take place in Titmarsh’s present along with a rundown of what lies ahead for a few of the characters. In this manner, Titmarsh presents the story through the lens of lessons learned and humbly retold for the edification of the reader.
Samuel Titmarsh is just one of twenty-four young men whose families have paid for their sons’ position at the Diddlesex Insurance Company. Samuel’s mother, the Widow Titmarsh, has invested her entire nest egg of four hundred pounds in the company. This indicates a huge amount of trust in the company and also her desperation. She also has 9 daughters to support, so great hopes rest on Samuel’s successful future. The Widow Titmarsh’s investment basically ‘buys’ Samuel a lowly clerk’s position within the Diddlesex Company.
The company boasts five million in capital, but the head of the company, the indefatigable Mr. Brough argues:
We have five millions in capital on our books, as you see–five bona-fide millions of bona-fide sovereigns paid up, sir,–there is no dishonesty there. But why should we not have twenty millions–a hundred millions? Why should not this be the greatest commercial association in the world!
Oh dear. With that speech, I saw shades of Aristide Saccard from Zola’s Money. Brough appears to be cut from the same cloth as Saccard, and we all know where Saccard’s megalomania led him (and those who believed in him). Brough has many other business ties. He appears to be a gregarious soul, but his affable exterior disguises the rather peculiar business practices of a scoundrel. He evens sinks low enough to coerce his servants to invest a portion of their pathetically low wages in the company, and he masks his greed with concern for the welfare of others.
Samuel Titmarsh’s troubles all begin when he returns from the country with “the great Hoggarty Diamond” –it’s a present from his obnoxious Aunt Hoggarty. Titmarsh has the diamond reset into a pin and he begins sporting it to work. When Brough learns that Titmarsh has affluent relatives and is Aunt Hoggarty’s ‘heir apparent’, he promotes Titmarsh to dizzying heights within the company, and pressures him to get his aunt to invest all her money. The diamond appears to bring its new owner luck, and it certainly opens doors that were once closed to Titmarsh. With the introduction of the diamond pin, a social marker of affluence, the novel sashays into a satire of British society and its intricate hierarchy of class and snobbery:
Well the pin certainly worked wonders: for not content merely with making me a present of a ride in a countess’s carriage, a haunch of venison and two baskets of fruit, …, my diamond had other honours in store for me, and procured me the honour of an invitation to the house of our director, Mr Brough.
Poor innocent Titmarsh doesn’t realise that Brough now considers Titmarsh, mistakenly identified as a cousin to a countess, a prospect to be squeezed for his money and his connections. The scenes at Brough’s home are really very funny as we see Brough’s horrible daughter Miss Belinda prancing around her competing beau–Captain Fizgig and the Byron-inspired Bill Tidd, more foolish young men to be squeezed for their fortunes. Here’s Belinda snobbily applying her limited grasp of French to Titmarsh:
At the name of the Countess (I have a dozen times rectified the error about our relationship), Miss Belinda made a low courtesy, and stared at me very hard, and said she would try to make the Rookery pleasant to any friend of papa’s. ‘We have not much monde today,’ continued Miss Brough, ‘and are only in petit comité; but I hope before you leave us you will see some société that will make your séjour agreeable.’
I saw at once that she was a fashionable girl, from her using the French language in this way.
And here’s Captain Fizgig:
‘Yes, Brough, your fair daughter pincé‘d the harp, and touché‘d the piano, and égratigné‘d the guitar, and écorché‘d a song or two; and we had the pleasure of a promenade à l’eau, –a walk upon the water.’
‘Law, captain!’ cries Mrs. Brough, ‘walk on the water?’
‘Hush, mamma, you don’t understand French!’ says Miss Belinda, with a sneer.
‘It’s a sad disadvantage, madam,’ says Fizgig gravely;’and I recommend you and Brough here, who are coming out in the great world, to have some lessons; or at least get up a couple of dozen phrases, and introduce them into your conversation here and there. I suppose, sir, you speak it commonly at the office, or what you call it?’ And Mr. Fizgig put his glass into his eye and looked at me.
The Diddlesex Company begins offering unheard of premiums to investors, and the annual yield soars beyond its previous 4%. Soon the naive Titmarsh, promoted to the dizzying heights of head clerk, finds himself embroiled in schemes and financial skullduggery that are not of his making. His situation is further complicated by Aunt Hoggarty who insists on moving to London.
This cautionary tale of greed and ambition is full of witty portraits–dreadful Aunt Hoggarty (her horribly misspelled letters appear throughout the text), the shady Reverend Grimes Wapshot, the grasping Mr. Brough, and his impossibly snobby daughter, Belinda. These characters move in a social circle whose members long to rub elbows with the upper echelons of British society, so the idea that Titmarsh may have noble connections makes him desirable to those who want an introduction to the society they cannot attain. As these unsavoury characters take advantage of Titmarsh in various ways, our hero learns some painful but valuable lessons in this extraordinary Ponzi scheme, but the nastiness is balanced with the sweetness and loyalty of Titmarsh’s true and loyal friends. Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond really serves as a companion to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, so if you’ve read one you might like the other.
Finally a bit of advice from our old friend Titmarsh:
“great profits imply great risks; [and that] shrewd capitalists of this country would not be content with four percent for their money, if they could securely get more.”